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July 2008
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The failure of the ONDCP

John Carnevale, who worked with four drug czars in the past as budget director, criticizes the ONDCP in the Huffington Post. (This isn’t the first time — he has previously accused Walters of simplifying data.)
Carnevale criticizes the over-reliance on supply-side efforts and the budgetary shell game that reduces the demonstrably more-effective treatment and prevention programs. And he hits hard on the lack of accountability.

Though Congress created ONDCP to formulate research-driven and performance-based policy, assess and modify policy through performance measures, and give a precise accounting of the federal drug control budget, ONDCP fails at all of those tasks. […]
Simply put: the cornerstone of all evidence-based policy driven by reliable performance data. Currently, ONDCP has failed to establish baseline measures link to the ingredients of an effective drug policy. This is inhibiting our nation’s ability to better assess future action. The first step of any administration must be to reassert ONDCP as the flagship substance abuse organization by instituting a performance measurement system to allow Congress, the American people, and ONDCP itself access to crucial data. To stay ahead of emerging drug trends, ONDCP must once again make knowledge development, data systems and research a priority. Leading drug use indicators must steer drug control policy rather than outdated trends.

But the thing is (and something even Carnevale apparently fails to understand), the ONDCP, the Administration, and Congress have no interest in evidence-based or performance-based policy. They want their drug war at any cost and regardless of any evidence of effectiveness. The only reason for having data is to cherry pick and manipulate it into crass public relations defense for the policy they already know they want.
The ONDCP is corrupt at its foundation — in its Congressional authorization language — in such a way as to be unsalvageable as a performance-based or evidence-based policy entity.
A new administration, therefore, cannot simply fix the ONDCP. Without restructuring from the ground up with the acquiescence of Congress, the best that an administration can do is to work to reduce the damage caused by the ONDCP.
In looking into this story, I came across a post by Benjamin Kirby Policy at the Fringes — How America’s Drug Policy Took a Hard Right Turn. Kirby served in a minor position in the ONDCP under Lee Brown and Barry McCaffrey. His post has a lot of good perspectives on drug policy — and he sees the failures of our policies, yet at the same time felt that the people involved at one time were good people:

Whatever your opinion on drug policy in America today — and I’ll share mine in a moment — the office which directs that policy is (or was when I was there in the mid-1990s) staffed with hard working, honest, and good public servants. I had a lot of good experiences there…

I have no reason to doubt that, and I must admit that I didn’t follow the ONDCP as closely in the mid-90’s (although there were surely policy decisions then that should have caused discomfort). But I have often wondered how public servants in the ONDCP today deal with the soul-sucking nature of the beast. Working for a top government agency that has lying to the American people as a critical part of its mission.
When today’s ONDCP staffers see the drug czar lie about potency, about the dangers of marijuana, about the lack of evidence for medical marijuana, about the successes in Colombia, what do they think? That the means are justified for some end? That they are functioning as some kind of elite benign dictatorship that must lie to the people for their own good? That it’s just a job?
Or, in order to justify themselves to themselves, do they delude themselves into believing the lies?
I know that the current occupants of that office read this blog on occasion. Care to enlighten me?

[Scott Morgan also discusses the Carnevale OpEd]

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