Under Obama, Drug Czar's Office Wanted To Decriminalize Pot

By Kelly Burch 06/02/17

In a new interview, former ONDCP officials explain how a single piece of legislation prevented marijuana decriminalization. 

Former president Barack Obama

Under the Obama administration, the Office of National Drug Control Policy—also known as the Drug Czar’s office—wanted to decriminalize marijuana, according to a new interview with former leaders of the organization. 

“ONDCP was in favor of decriminalizing but not legalizing,” former deputy director A. Thomas McLellan told The Huffington Post

However, the office decided not to push for decriminalization in part because it did not want to detract attention from the ongoing opioid epidemic. In addition, a clause in the law that created the office complicated matters, making the ONDCP unable to take steps toward decriminalization. 

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, which established the Office of National Drug Control Policy, explicitly states “the legalization of illegal drugs is an unconscionable surrender in the war on drugs.” That stance was solidified by additional legislation that renewed funding for the ONDCP, with the condition that the office must “oppose any attempt to legalize” cannabis. The legislation also banned federal funds from being used to study the legalization of marijuana and other Schedule I drugs.  

Because of those laws, officials at the ONDCP felt that they were limited in what they were able to say about the decriminalization of marijuana. 

“It forced the office to take a policy position that it may or may not agree to,” Michael Botticelli, the former director of the drug czar’s office, told The Huffington Post. “[It] hamstrings you into a policy position that might be the policy of the day but that might change.”

Critics of marijuana prohibition have pointed toward that legislation as a way to show that the government’s ban on marijuana is rooted in outdated policies rather than scientific fact. 

“The existence of that statute, that prohibition, has been something that our movement has held up to criticize ONDCP,” Tom Angell, the founder of Marijuana Majority, said. “Taking that off the table would be good for us and it would also be good for them … It makes them look political in ways that their scientists probably don’t want to be.”

A former employee of the ONDCP who spoke with The Huffington Post agreed: “It makes it look like the office’s primary purpose is to oppose marijuana.”

In 2014 a bill was introduced that would remove the ban and allow the ONDCP to discuss and study marijuana legalization. However, the bill did not go anywhere. Now, with the Trump administration calling for maximum penalties for even low-level drug offenses, the opportunity for marijuana decriminalization at the federal level seems far off. Botticelli said that the policy changes are “very alarming.”

“It seems like we are moving backwards instead of forward,” he said. “And to a position that I think doesn’t have a lot of science and evidence. We’ve tried that approach for a very long time, and it doesn’t seem to really have made a significant difference.”

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