Kellyanne Conway Takes Over Opioid Response

By Kelly Burch 02/08/18

Drug policy experts have been excluded. "It's a message that we're not taking this drug issue seriously.”

kellyanne conway
Photo via Wikimedia/Gage Skidmore

As White House counselor Kellyanne Conway takes over public policy at President Trump’s urging, some government officials and drug policy experts say that the administration is undermining the Office of National Drug Control Policy and pushing out expert voices in favor of advocating for less credible solutions to the opioid crisis, including a war on drugs led by law enforcement and a border wall.

"It’s fair to say the ONDCP has pretty much been systematically excluded from key decisions about opioids and the strategy moving forward,” a former Trump administration staffer told Politico.

Politico reported that Conway is overseeing the administration’s response to the opioid epidemic, using a cabinet of political staffers without expertise in public health policy. Conway herself has a political background but not public health expertise.

“Kellyanne Conway is not an expert in this field,” said Andrew Kessler, the founder of Slingshot Solutions, a consulting group that’s worked on federal substance abuse campaigns. “She may be a political operative and a good political operative. But look. When you appoint a secretary of Labor, you want someone with a labor background. When you appoint a secretary of Defense, you want someone with a defense background. The opioid epidemic needs leadership that ‘speaks’ the language of drug policy.”

Some government officials who have been at the forefront of the fight against opioid addiction said they have heard little from Conway.

“I haven’t talked to Kellyanne at all and I’m from the worst state for this,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from West Virginia. Senator Rob Portman of Ohio made a similar statement.

New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassan said she has seen the impact of the administration’s undermining of the drug control policy office. “What we haven’t seen is the kind of coordination of critical programs that ONDCP has traditionally done,” she said.

The Trump administration has vowed to stand strong against opioid addiction, but its policies suggest otherwise. Last year, the administration tried to cut funding to the ONDCP. More recently, the administration came under fire when it was discovered that a 24-year-old with no public policy background was the second in command at the ONDCP.

"It sends a terrible message," former ONDCP director Gil Kerlikowske said earlier this month. "It's a message that we're not taking this drug issue seriously.”

However, not everyone who talked to Politico thought that Conway’s supervision was a negative.

"It’s a really good sign that one of the president’s top advisers has been assigned to such an important topic,” said Jessica Hulsey Nickel, president and CEO of the Addiction Policy Forum.

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.