Federal Drug Office Gets Spanked In Newest Budget Proposal

Funds used by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) to produce national anti-drug ads would be slashed under the most recent budget proposal in Congress.

The ONDCP’s national media funds, used in an attempt to turn young people against the use of controlled substances like marijuana and prescription drugs, are set to be cut by approximately $39 million from the amount allocated for 2007. But that’s not the end of the bad news for the President’s drug control office.Yesterday, Dec. 17, the House of Representatives passed the omnibus appropriations bill to set the debate for a Senate and House consensus on the 2008 budget. In a document from the House and Senate appropriations committees explaining the budget proposal, ONDCP personnel are criticized for “extensive travel at taxpayer expense:”

The amended bill assumes that not more than $600,000 shall be provided for travel by ONDCP officials, and although travel amounts are not allocated by office as proposed in the Senate,the Appropriations Committees note the extensive travel conducted by ONDCP officials at taxpayer expense. The Committees are aware of investigations of travel by ONDCP that may have occurred for political purposes and caution the Director and other high-ranking officials that travel should occur for official business reasons only, not for political gain, and that travel should occur only when absolutely necessary in order to fulfill the ONDCP mission.

In July, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform issued a release, questioning why former White House Director of Political Affairs Sara Taylor requested that ONDCP head John Walters and staff travel to 20 different events with GOP candidates before the 2006 elections. These trips were also paid for by federal tax dollars, along with federal grants that benefited the visited Republican districts.

The ONDCP also has a questionable history in Colorado. Staff members made numerous appearances to campaign against a 2006 statewide proposal to legalize marijuana.

In September of 2006, former ONDCP officials joined then-Lt. Governor Jane Norton, a Republican, to speak out against the initiative, which would have legalized possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for adults 21 years and older. ONDCP “drug czar” Walters traveled to Colorado Springs to announce his opposition to legalization, and ONDCP Deputy Director Scott Burns joined Colorado Attorney General John Suthers (Republican) at a regional methamphetamine conference in Grand Junction.

Approximately $99 million for national ONDCP ad campaigns was appropriated for both 2006 and 2007, but the new budget proposal would lower the two-year number to $60 million–considerably lower than  President George W. Bush’s initial request of $130 million to subsidize an “integrated effort that combines TV, radio, print, and interactive media with public communications outreach to youth and parents.”

The federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report (PDF) in August 2006 showing that ONDCP ads were ineffective in reducing youth drug use, and recommended that the ONDCP receive limited appropriations until the office could provide “credible evidence” of effective media campaigns.

The total operating budget for the ONDCP, including the ads, was $464 million in 2007, and is currently set to be $473 million in 2008. In the recent budget legislation, the ONDCP director would be required to provide quarterly reports to the appropriations committees on travel expenditures. The ONDCP did not return a request for comment.

Erin Rosa was born in Spain and raised in Colorado Springs. She is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa's work has been featured in a variety of news outlets including the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, and the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, an alternative-weekly in Northern Colorado where she worked as a columnist covering the state legislature. Rosa has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on lobbying and woman's health issues. She was also tapped with a rare honorable mention award by the Newspaper Guild-CWA's David S. Barr Award in 2008--only the second such honor conferred in its nine-year history--for her investigative series covering the federal government's Supermax prison in the state. Rosa covers the labor community, corrections, immigration and government transparency matters. She can be reached at erosa@www.coloradoindependent.com.