Trump Plan to Move Drug Prevention Program to Justice Dept. Prompts Protests
Posted February 6, 2018 7:53 p.m. EST
WASHINGTON — State and local law enforcement officials are fighting a Trump administration proposal to move oversight of a $275 million drug prevention program to the Justice Department, fearing that such a move would steer the country’s drug-fighting strategy toward federal legal crackdowns and away from years of holistic, community-based approaches.
A draft budget plan by the Office of Management and Budget would place federal law enforcement officers in charge of the drug trafficking grants rather than the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which has served as the White House’s clearinghouse for drug strategy across the government and as a neutral arbiter in the historically territorial relationship between federal, state and local authorities.
The move would also effectively gut the drug office, whose influence has waned since President Donald Trump took office. The office manages the grants, known as the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program, sending millions of federal dollars to 28 task forces across the country, composed of state, local and federal law enforcement officers, who use the money to combat drug trafficking in their communities.
Directors of the grant program have descended on Capitol Hill this week to try to bolster support from Congress, which would need to approve any White House changes to the drug office or the program. Lawmakers have shown little appetite to alter a federal initiative that benefits state and local authorities and constituents.
“In the middle of this huge epidemic, is now the time to start rearranging the deck chairs?” said Chauncey Parker, the director of the program task force in New York City and a former prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office. “ONDCP are the experts and the professionals on this issue, and they’re the best ones from a holistic standpoint to be able to take a look at all of this.”
The proposal has sent confusing signals to law enforcement officials who saw an ally in Trump given that he campaigned as a “law and order” candidate and courted state and local police in his election bid. In justifying potential changes to the grant program, the White House’s budget office has in recent months said privately that it believes federal authorities should be leading the charge on drug enforcement, according to two people familiar with the conversations.
“The fear is, if it goes to the Justice Department, it will become a Justice Department administrative program, and that will take away the ability for a lot of state and local agencies,” said Bob Bushman, the president of the National Narcotic Officers’ Associations’ Coalition, which works with the task forces.
An Office of Management and Budget spokeswoman declined to comment on the proposed change but stressed that the drug office still had a place at the center of Trump’s drug strategy.
“The president needs ONDCP to be a strong policy council to manage his drug control priorities, especially combating the opioid epidemic, and coordinate all of the interagency activities,” said Meghan Burris, the budget office spokeswoman.
But the influence of the drug office has weakened under the Trump administration, according to half a dozen current and former officials, who described an agency plagued with infighting. Its acting director, Richard Baum, has been kept out of key White House meetings and is not privy to budget negotiations. White House aides have told the drug office’s political appointees not to update Baum on discussions because they suspect he will talk to reporters about changes that could take resources away from the office, according to people familiar with the conversations.
Asked to comment, the drug office declined to directly address concerns that Baum would speak to the news media. The office has been without permanent leadership since January 2017. Last year, Trump nominated Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., to serve as the director, colloquially known as the drug czar. Marino withdrew from consideration after it was revealed that he had pushed legislation that would hamper the Drug Enforcement Administration’s ability to go after pharmaceutical companies contributing to the country’s drug crisis.
Instead, the office has relied on a small group of political appointees to press for its survival, one of whom was a 24-year-old Trump campaign volunteer who exaggerated his résumé, The Washington Post reported.
With the proposed move of the grant program, the drug office is at risk of losing its largest stake in the national conversation on drug policy. The High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program dishes out $275 million annually; the drug office’s staffing budget was only $19.2 million in 2017, said its spokesman, William Eason.
“Right now, it is making no contribution,” Barry R. McCaffrey, a retired Army general, said of the drug office, which he led from 1996 to 2001.
In a letter to the White House last month, 10 Democratic senators expressed concern about the president’s commitment to the drug policy office and its programs.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy was created by Congress during the height of the crack cocaine epidemic in 1988 as part of the war on drugs. Its two key responsibilities are managing the grant program and writing the annual National Drug Strategy.
The drug office is also the only other executive branch office besides the budget office that has authority over agencies’ appropriations, which has historically caused tension between the two. The drug office can approve or disapprove budgets depending on how agencies are funding their drug-related programs. McCaffrey is the only director to have exercised such authority, when he decertified the Pentagon’s 1999 budget.
The Office of Management and Budget has not yet consulted with officials for the drug office or grant program on the proposed changes in this year’s budget, two administration officials said, which they said would almost certainly disrupt the grants and neuter the office’s already limited political influence.
Proponents of the move say that the drug office is better suited strictly as a policy shop, and that housing the grant program under the Justice Department could make its 28 local interagency task forces more accountable. The drug office audits the programs every four years.
Its small staff did not produce the congressionally mandated national drug strategy in 2017, citing the presidential transition. It did not produce this year’s strategy by its deadline last week. Eason said the budget office requested that the national drug strategy not be released until after the federal budget is announced, expected this month.