What does the US drug czar actually do?

Emily Gray Brosious

May 1, 2017: 2:21 PM CT

U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and Attorney General Jeff Sessions (R) attend a panel discussion on opioid and drug abuse in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on March 29, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Shawn Thew-Pool/Getty Images)

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Trump’s rumored drug czar raises concerns among progressive reformers.

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Drug policy reform advocates recently sounded the alarms after President Donald Trump’s likely pick for director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) came to light.

“Congressman Tom Marino of Pennsylvania is the perfect choice for drug czar because President Donald Trump is assembling a team of old-school drug warriors at the White House whose favorite things include marijuana prohibition, civil asset forfeiture, and mandatory drug treatment for cannabis consumers,” Chris Goldstein wrote for Philly420.

Marino, who would be the first Congress member chosen as ONDCP director (colloquially known as the drug czar), has a consistent record of opposing marijuana reform measures despite calling medical marijuana a “state’s rights issue” in 2016, as The Washington Post reported.

Marino has also supported the controversial drug courts system, which the pro-reform organization the Drug Policy Alliance describes as “coerced treatment” that represents a “punitive, 1980s style approach to drugs.”

U.S. drug courts, first established in 1989, are designed to address drug addiction through the criminal justice system by providing supervised treatment to drug offenders. The Drug Policy Alliance criticizes the drug courts system for further criminalizing drug addiction, which it argues is a public health issue and not a criminal one.

Drug policy reform advocates now fear the new drug czar may exert a hardline prohibitionist influence on the executive branch.

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What does the US 'drug czar' actually do?Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA), President Donald Trump’s rumored pick to lead the Office of National Drug Control Policy, speaks during a news conference on September 23, 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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So what does the drug czar actually do?

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The ONDCP was created by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 and is part of the Executive Office of the President. President Reagan created the drug czar position as a component of his “Just Say No” campaign aimed at reducing illegal drug use.

The drug czar has traditionally played an administrative role, coordinating national drug control strategies to reduce supply and demand of illegal drugs and allocating funds to various federal programs. The drug czar is responsible for overseeing ONDCP international and domestic anti-drug efforts in the executive branch and advising the president on drug control strategies.

Under the Obama administration, national drug control strategies began turning away from punitive, law-enforcement-heavy approaches of the 1980s and ’90s. The ONDCP’s shift toward public health approaches to drug control also prompted some calls to eliminate the role of drug czar. ONDCP critics like Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, whose office stopped prosecuting marijuana misdemeanors in 2010, said the drug czar position has become a waste of taxpayer money, the McClatchy DC Bureau reported in 2013.

“One of the most helpful things the president can do right now is to not spend money on filling that position,” Holmes said at the time.

In February 2017, The New York Times reported the ONDCP was among a group of federal programs facing elimination under the Trump administration’s budget proposal. ONDCP supporters like the Fraternal Order of Police began speaking out about the nation’s opioid epidemic and calling for the president to preserve the anti-drug program.

“The ONDCP plays a vital role in coordinating a national strategy to fight drug trafficking and reduce illegal drug use,” the FOP wrote in a letter to the president. “As you know, State and local law enforcement are on the front lines of this fight, but it is the ONDCP that funds and oversees critical programs … Without the ONDCP to help law enforcement agencies at every level to work together, we would have no way to set and coordinate a national strategy.”

The ONDCP is no longer on the chopping block. And on March 29, the White House released an executive order establishing a special President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, which the ONDCP is tasked with providing funds to.

According to the executive order:

“It shall be the policy of the executive branch to combat the scourge of drug abuse, addiction, and overdose (drug addiction), including opioid abuse, addiction, and overdose (opioid crisis). This public health crisis was responsible for more than 50,000 deaths in 2015 alone, most of which involved an opioid, and has caused families and communities across America to endure significant pain, suffering, and financial harm.”

The Trump administration has become increasingly vocal about the need to reduce opioid addiction and abuse in the United States. And by most accounts, it seems the federal drug control strategy is largely focused on illegal drugs tied to overdose deaths, such as heroin and methamphetamine, rather than substances like marijuana.

That said, the president’s new commission appears to signal a shift toward drug control strategies focused on individual drug users. The line between forced treatment and punishment can be blurry. And with someone like Marino whispering drug policy advice into Trump’s ear – not to mention Attorney General Jeff Sessions manning the Justice Department – there is a real possibility that drug courts, zero-tolerance policies and aggressive law enforcement strategies could make a sweeping comeback.

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Related gallery:

Where do Trump’s cabinet picks stand on marijuana policy?

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Gallery source links:

Mike Pence – Leafly, On The Issues, NORML; Reince Priebus – The Denver Post; Rex Tillerson – CNN, CNN; John Kelly – CBS News, Drug Policy Alliance, Military Times; Mike Pompeo – NPR, Vote Smart; Nikki Haley – CNN, Tenth Amendment Center; Steven Mnuchin – NBC News, Senate Committee on Finance; Jeff Sessions – USA Today, Politico; Ryan Zinke – Americans for Safe Access, Vote Smart; Sonny Perdue – On The Issues; Hemp Business Journal; David Shulkin – Department of Veterans Affairs/Scribd; Tom Price – NORML; Scott Pruitt – Associated Press; Rick Perry – “The Hugh Hewitt Show”; Mick Mulvaney – NORML

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