The drug czar’s office has long functioned as a cheerleader for punitive drug policies. As someone who has been engaged in drug policy reform efforts most of my adult life, I can easily recall the forcefulness with which former drug czars like John Walters and Gen. Barry McCaffrey advocated in defense of zero tolerance policies without any regard to the scientific rationale for these policies or the destructive impact they have on individuals and communities.
However, under the Obama administration, the drug czar’s office has made a notable shift in rhetoric and tone. This week, U.S. Senate confirmed President Obama’s nomination of Michael Botticelli to become the next director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), a position informally known as “drug czar.” Since joining ONDCP in 2012, Botticelli has served as ONDCP’s acting director and its deputy director.
Before joining ONDCP, Botticelli spent nearly two decades overseeing substance misuse programs at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. His background in public health gives hope to advocates that his leadership at ONDCP may be guided more by science and reason than his predecessors.
In the three years that he has played a leadership role in the drug czar’s office, Botticelli has demonstrated his commitment to advancing more science-based and compassionate drug policies. In public remarks, Botticelli has emphasized the need to expand treatment to people who need it, reduce stigma associated with drug use, and reduce collateral consequences following a conviction.
Advocates have praised Botticelli for supporting improved access to naloxone – a drug that rapidly reverses opiate overdoses - and promoting “Good Samaritan” laws that provide protection from drug possession charges when an overdose witness seeks medical attention.
Advocates also have praised Botticelli for leading an effort by the Obama administration to promote medication-assisted treatment. Last week, Botticelli announced a new policy barring federal funding for drug courts that do not allow participation in medication-assisted treatment programs.
Federal law precludes ONDCP from advocating for marijuana legalization and Botticelli has maintained the Obama administration’s opposition to it. However, there was a remarkable moment last week when Botticelli became the first drug czar to express support for allowing a voter-passed ballot measure that legalizes marijuana possession to take effect.
His public remarks were consistent with the Obama administration’s position that the District of Columbia should be able to implement a ballot measure passed by 70 percent of voters last November that legalizes possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana despite a congressional rider that some Republican members of Congress intended would block the measure from taking effect.
The Drug Policy Alliance has urged Botticelli to do more to raise awareness of the harms of criminalization of people who use drugs, and the relationship between punitive drug laws and their disproportionate impact on communities of color.
Promoting programs that divert people suspected of low-level drug law violations away from the criminal justice system, such as the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) model, would help. Botticelli should also redouble his efforts to eliminate barriers to life saving public health interventions like syringe services and naloxone that reduce harms caused by drug use.
Finally, Botticelli should push back on the notion that the drug czar’s office cannot advocate for an end to marijuana prohibition.
Botticelli clearly represents a significant improvement on all his predecessors as drug czar. However, there is a lot more that ONDCP can do under Botticelli’s leadership to treat drug use as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue.
Grant Smith is the deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance.