An ONDCP reform that might be possible

I know we’ve gotten a bit excited about the excellent hearing conducted by Representative Kucinich this week.

Some have wondered what it will mean.

One powerful hearing like that one will not mean the end of the ONDCP, or the DEA, or the drug war, or even this Drug Czar. It won’t even mean a significant change in this year’s drug policy budget. This subcommittee doesn’t have that power (or imagine what Mark Souder would have done with the subcommittee he chaired).

But it still is a sea change. As Kaptinemo noted in comments, it’s a long way from when Congressional hearings were about whether we can arrest drug policy reformers

Suggesting the depth of hostility toward the notion of legal drugs, Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., asked whether anti-racketeering laws could be used to prosecute people conspiring to legalize drugs.

Oh yeah. That happened.

Mostly this is big because it opens the discussion on the Hill. Staffers have been getting regular visits from LEAP and COP lobbyists, softening them up. Now, the Drug Czar looks weak and vulnerable — not someone to line up behind. That makes some kind of reform much more possible.

So what reform might Congress enact? Particularly when it comes to the reauthorization of the ONDCP?

Here, in my mind, is the most important part of Ethan Nadelmann’s testimony before the committee:

When it comes to performance measures, ONDCP historically has pointed to increases or decreases in the total number of Americans who admit to using an illegal drug within the last year as the most important criteria for judging the success or failure of U.S. drug policy. The agency sets two- and five-year goals based on annual surveys of drug use. It is not evident yet what performance measures ONDCP will lay out in its forthcoming Strategy, but when speaking before the 53rd UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs last month Director Kerlikowske said, “[t]he U.S. Strategy will emphasize and focus on our commitment to reduce U.S. drug consumption.”

Drug use rates tell us surprisingly little, however, about our nation’s progress toward reducing the actual harms associated with drugs. If the number of Americans using illegal drugs decreases, but overdose fatalities, new HIV/AIDS infections, racial disparities and addiction increases, the Drug Policy Alliance would consider that failure. In contrast, if the number of Americans using illegal drugs increases, but overdose fatalities, new HIV/AIDS infections, racial disparities and addiction declines, the Drug Policy Alliance would consider that success. Key performance measurements should focus on the death, disease, crime and suffering associated with both drugs and our drug policies, not drug use per se.

Simply stated, ups and downs in how many people say they used marijuana or other drugs last year are far less important than ups and downs in drug overdose fatalities, or new HIV and hepatitis C infections, or expenditures on incarceration of non-violent drug offenders.

If this subcommittee advances only one drug-related reform it should be to require ONDCP to set objectives for reducing the harms associated with both drugs and the war on drugs. ONDCP shouldn’t just set short- and long-term goals for reducing drug use; it should set specific goals for reducing fatal overdoses, the spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C, racial disparities, the number of nonviolent offenders behind bars, and other negative consequences of both drug use and drug control policies.

This is almost exactly what I would tell Congress if I had the opportunity.

You see, as much as we might want to tell Congress that they have no right to be involved in drug consumption, or that they simply shouldn’t be involved, any such attempt would be ignored at best. More likely, we’d be seen as kooks. These are the folks who feel like they should meddle in every aspect of our lives, and as wrong as that is, they’re not going to have their sense of paternalistic right changed overnight.

If, however, we can convince them that the metrics they use must be changed to actually do any good (and we’ve demonstrated that past), then that could seem to be a mere positive technical correction — not anything ridiculously “radical” like legalization.

One of the biggest problem with federal drug policy has been the emphasis on “use” rather than “harm.” That’s why the feds spend so much time on marijuana. Since it’s the most used illicit drug with a lot of casual use (and easy to quit), it’s a much more attractive target for getting quick numbers.

The other thing is that when “use” is the only metric, there’s no reason to track, or even acknowledge, the vast harms from prohibition.

Converting the ONDCP’s mission to a “harm” metric would force a complete restructuring of data collection related to the drug war and open up an entirely new dialog at a governmental level about the relative harms of drugs and prohibition.

We would suddenly see the Drug Czar’s office heavily promoting needle exchange (and maybe even heroin maintenance programs) in a desperate attempt to generate some numbers that show reduced harm. And the harms of prohibition, while certainly understated by the government, would have to be at least acknowledged.

This would be a huge step forward for the country as it would take us out of the automatic prohibition mindset that comes from the meaningless directive to “reduce use.”

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23 Responses to An ONDCP reform that might be possible

  1. Duff Beer says:

    An excellent article concerning the drug war –

  2. Scott says:

    Too many people apparently believe that “use” is “harm”.

    Those people have been taught to believe that “drug use” and “drug abuse” are the same thing, a feat accomplished by prohibitionists simply by swapping the words “use” and “abuse” to their convenience.

    Prohibitionist malice may not be the reason, however, as there is unfortunately a lack of a clear line separating those words in the English language.

    Drug Prohibition, in the most positive light, is nothing more than a massive misunderstanding.

    I would love to see the words use and abuse separated by a hard ‘definition line’. Abuse should be solely defined as ‘use plus objectively-proven harm’, so ridiculous blanket policies banning use to defeat the harm associated with abuse would no longer be justified (a tremendous improvement for a free society).

    I’m guessing that proposing a positive change in the English language makes me a kook, but then I’m happy to join the many so-called kooks who have boldly challenged the status quo throughout history, and due to being right, ended up revolutionizing their respective areas in society.

    There is nothing wrong with going to the public and firmly challenging the constitutional basis of marijuana prohibition (especially since that basis is obviously ridiculous).

    There is nothing kooky about pointing to liberty as an unalienable right (legally protected by amendment nine in our Constitution) and declaring that it has been unjustly opposed.

    Our movement should be dominantly about discrediting the prohibitionists by using their own information against them (no spin needed), and the U.S. National Drug Use & Health Survey (showing current use remaining basically steady each year at 8%) is a great report to work with.

    I am a huge fan of harm reduction, of course, and for improving the statistics regarding drug prohibition, but there needs to be a strong ‘Tea Partyism’ in our movement that constantly challenges conservatives who constantly proclaim their support for liberty and our Constitution.

    We have not done anywhere near a good enough job politely exposing conservative hypocrisy when it comes to the anti-conservative New Deal (responsible for many government regulations against free markets) being the sole basis for a ban on harmless acts related to marijuana.

    While such an argument failed in the past, the existence of a globally persistent communications system (a.k.a. the Internet) makes it impossible for conservatives to forever dodge the laughably-pathetic connection between marijuana prohibition and our Constitution.

    Converting conservatives is a great way to tip the public scales heavily in our favor, naturally giving these committee sessions more meaning. I believe that conversion is essential in efficiently ending drug prohibition.

  3. kaptinemo says:

    Thank you, Pete. I wasn’t in any shape this weekend to do the necessary research, but you found it all the same.

    Like I said, the recent Kucinich-chaired hearing is a far cry from what drug law reformers had to put up with a decade ago. What a difference a souring economy and record numbers of Americans out of work can make to change Congressional irascibility towards drug law reform. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to have someone who has rationally stated time-and-again his opposition to the DrugWar chairing that committee.

    True, one hearing does not guarantee reform. But the word’s gotten out, and the ‘kooky legalizers’, as the opposition is so fond of describing us, are being respectfully heard in the halls of Congress. The pol who chaired it is still breathing, the sky hasn’t fallen, the Earth has not opened up and swallowed him…the precedent is set. It’s safe to talk about this, now. And more pols will.

    Oh sure, the screech-monkeys will still shriek and throw poo, but they’re on notice, now. Bring their bogus ‘facts’ to the table as evidence for their position and their ‘facts’ will be torn to pieces in front of them and thrown back in their faces, as the hearings will be conducted under oath. The prohibs can only lie now if they are willing to risk perjury. And for the longest time, that’s all they could do, is lie. Gil’s prevaricating and dissembling will be magnified a thousand fold…until the chairman gets tired of it and put his foot down, as he did during the first round.

    Oh, yes, as Chairman Kucinich said, let there be more hearings, many more. They will be the legal equivalent of skinning someone alive, to strip the lies and misinformation from the prohibs layer by layer. Look for a lot of these prohibs and their astroturf groups to start bringing legal counsel to the hearings, with lots of covered-mic chatter going on between responses, and plenty of “I do not recall…” being said. When they start doing that, they’re done for.

  4. Bill Harris says:

    Director Kerlikowske says he wants to reduce drug use, but he doesn’t mean aspirin. Aspirin is a drug, but it’s a legal drug. The director would say that it goes without saying that he only means that he wants to reduce illegal-drug use. He doesn’t say it that way, because then the problem becomes easy to solve. If all drugs were legalized, there would be no illegal-drug use, at the stroke of a pen.

  5. claygooding says:

    The warning shot across the bow of ONDCP has many people
    taking a second look at our website and I am sure that Pete is seeing more “new” traffic as well.
    Even more of the baby-boomers in my small town of 2500 in the hard line prison state of Texas are speaking up about their experiences as young college students and asking questions about the medical uses of the herb for such things as arthritis and other problems facing the older generations. They usually end the conversation with the statement that they never believed any of the hype by the government then and it has influenced their opinions of any federal actions since.
    So the lies that have sustained the ONDCP’s war against marijuana has been undermining our governments efforts even in endeavors that are necessary and probably good for America.
    I believe that the committee will force more than just a change of direction from our drug warriors. In order to draw attention away from their wasting billions of dollars in supply and the imprisonment of non-violent criminals will bring about the end of the prohibition of marijuana.
    Research that they paid for out of our tax dollars and ignored or even lied about,is going to bite them in the ass.

    PS. I sent the article about the COCA COLLA to the committee,as proof that the ONDCP’s present and past policies are effective.

  6. BluOx says:

    @CG -Yes, one more ‘warning shot’ has been fired across the bow of the SS ONDCP, but why not scuttle the old scow? We already have the FDA, why do we need another drug agency? It’s just a perk for law enforcement. What Nixon gave us ,someone should take back.

  7. BruceM says:

    Sorry it’s a good argument and I agree with it in substance, but nobody will EVER defeat the asinine response that “Our Precious Children simply cannot afford our adoption of a policy which approves of an increase in overall drug use, regardless of any other considerations.”

  8. kaptinemo says:

    Bruce M, I beg to differ for, that’s exactly what happened the last time with alcohol Prohibition. Like here, here and here.

    It was in no small part women’s concern for their children that first led many to vote for alcohol Prohibition…and then to vote for its’ demise after realizing the harm it had done. Al it takes is a few getting their children harmed by the very system they supported to have that happen…and of course, its’ happening all the time, but to the ‘right’ (Black, Hispanic, Asian, Poor White Trash) people. When it happens to the ‘wrong’ (Middle Class White) children, then, as usual the laws get changed.

  9. kaptinemo says:

    BTW, in my research, I found many old magazine editorial cartoons of the time, and it’s astonishing when you realize just how similar the sentiments of both reformers and prohibs (and the prohib’s attitudes about civil liberties) have changed so very little.

  10. Just me says:

    Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it Kaptin…and repeating we are!

  11. ezrydn says:

    Over at Granny Storm Crow’s roost, Green, they have a great 2CD torrent that’s packed with historical matter, both pro and con. Well worth the time to download.

    The page is

  12. Let’s all take a brief break to remember that it was 67 years ago today that Albert Hofmann took his infamous bicycle ride.

  13. denmark says:

    The ONDCP had a beginning, it needs to have an end.
    Many thank you’s to all the intelligent commenters here who reveal the outright lies surrounding Prohibition.

  14. I just now discovered, in the notes Albert Hofmann made 67 years ago today, that he took his prepared LSD dose at precisely 16:20 – or 4:20 in the afternoon.

    Kinda makes you wanna go hmmm…

  15. Chris says:

    That their goal should be to reduce harm and not use makes a lot of sense. I’ve obviously thought about it before, but not in the detail laid out in this post. It’s an awesome argument that I’m going to use. We don’t ban driving or drinking, we ban drunk driving. The same should apply to other activities.

  16. claygooding says:

    Free downloads of “Marijuana is Safer” tomorrow @ MPP:

  17. BruceM says:

    kaptinemo: History will show the repeal of alcohol prohibition was sui generis, a one-time thing never to be repeated again, much like the US’s success at turning occuppied Japan into a pro-western democracy after WWII. Nothing like that will ever happen again, they’re unique one-time things. The same arguments, the same logic, the same reasoning, the same steps and plans will never duplicate the end result.

    Alcohol had a chance to become acceptable before people reluctantly outlawed it. Due to the idiot hippies of the 60’s as well as institutional racism, no drug ever had the same opportunity to become socially acceptable before its prohibition like alcohol did. Every drug was seen as something used by outsiders. Not so with alcohol. Even during alcohol prohibition people were not seen as real “criminals” for drinking (actually the law didn’t ban drinking or possession of alcohol just the sale and manufacture of it). Not so with drugs.

    So anything that happened that brought about the ending of alcohol prohibition is as irrelevant to ending drug prohibition as anything done by the US to rebuild Japan is to the US’s attempt to rebuild Iraq or Afghanistan.

    Alcohol was a one-time thing. So was Japan. Using the same playbook for either to address modern issues means you’ve lost before you’ve even started. The former is not a model of the latter.

  18. kaptinemo says:

    Bruce, again, I’ll have to beg to differ.

    The underlying circumstances of alcohol Prohibition ending had more to do with the economic inability of the government to maintain the funding for Prohibition;s infrastructure than it did with its’ societal acceptance.

    Recall, the public rationales for banning alcohol were almost all based upon perceived societal harms caused by its’ use; those very same perceived societal harms were not invalidated or ignored by the reform movement. Then, as today, it was acknowledged that some people may not benefit personally due to relegalization (then with alcohol, today with other drugs) due to their having extreme addictive personalities. Such people are, mercifully, vanishingly few in number.

    That perception of societal harm (much of which is based upon Calvinism and interpretations of historical cycles, as in declines of civilizations) has never gone away, and serves as the raison d’etre of modern-day ‘Dry’ groups like MADD and ‘anti-drug’ groups like PFDFA.

    But that didn’t stop Prohibition from being scrapped, and will not stop the ‘retirement’ of drug prohibition. For the economy isn’t just an 800 pound gorilla, it’s an 800 ton gorilla, and it’s sitting where it damn well pleases, and if the prohibs get squashed under its’ slowly descending posterior, because they won’t get out of the chair it’s about to sit on due to their principles saying they have a right to sit there, then they’ve only themselves to blame.

    Otherwise, one might as well give up and throw in the towel. And after the gains we’ve made so far, that would be foolish.

  19. BruceM says:

    Well obviously the same problems we see with drug prohibition applied to, and were loudly noted during, alcohol prohibition. But just because we were able to reason ourselves out of alcohol prohibition does not mean we’ll be able to do the same with with the prohibition of all other drugs. Like always when I post here, “drugs” does not mean just marijuana. It means everything – heroin, meth, crack, you name it.

    What gains have been made so far? A few places have voted for slightly less unreasonable punishments for possession of marijuana? Allowing a drug to be used by people with a hard-to-acquire permission slip from a doctor is not progress. I can already get cocaine or methamphetamine if I can convince a doctor to write me a C-II Rx for it. That doesn’t mean I’m going to be able to get and use said substance.

    Name ONE bit of substantive progress in getting rid of drug prohibition that doesn’t involve slightly less restrictions on marijuana at the state level (which I deem irrelevant as long as it’s banned at the federal level).

    There are only “gains” if your goal is easier access to pot. That’s not relevant to getting rid of institutional prohibition and “controlling” of substances.

  20. BruceM says:

    Do you think we can do what we did with post-WWII Japan and succeed in occupying Iraq and Afghanistan and turning them into independent pro-western democracies with viable economies and high standards of living?

    If not, why?

  21. ezrydn says:


    I don’t think so and here’s why. The cultural differences between the two countries and Japan are like night and day. There is no “overlay” you can take off Japan and place on the other two. Will we place armies there to watch the growers? And how long will that last?

  22. BruceM says:

    I think Japan’s unique culture, and that it’s people basically lived for and worshipped what they believed was a living god, allowed Japan thrive during our occupation. They all listened to the Emperor, but the Emperor listened to MacArthur and that was that. Any Japanese who resisted the US would be resisting the Emperor. No insurgency, no whining.

    I don’t think any other country could have turned out so successful in such a brief time. If someone could figure out a way to get all Muslims to listen to one man who listens to the US, there would be an immediate end to islamic faith-based terrorism. Of course, that would simply never happen.

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