In a Strong Reversal, Congress Prohibits Drug Czar From Running Ads Against Ballot Measures and Candidates

Press Release June 4, 2003
Media Contact

Tony Newman at 212-613-8026

In a surprising vote, the House Government Reform Committee voted to turn-back sweeping anti-drug measures that a House Subcommittee had approved just weeks ago. If enacted, the anti-drug measures would have, among other things, spent millions of dollars in local and state law-enforcement funding to arrest AIDS and cancer patients that smoked marijuana for medicinal reasons and given the Bush White House the unprecedented ability to spend over a billion dollars in taxpayer money to try to defeat medical marijuana ballot measures and pro-reform candidates for public office. Committee Members not only repealed these provisions, they passed many other important drug policy reforms.

“This is a major victory for the majority of Americans that favor a more compassionate and less expensive national drug policy,” said Bill Piper, Associate Director of National Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Members of this committee should be thanked for working to ensure that federal bureaucrats don’t use taxpayer money to tell taxpayers how to vote, that states that adopt medical marijuana laws are not financially punished, and that former drug offenders are not denied student loans.”

The bill under question, the Office of National Drug Control Policy Reauthorization Act of 2003, was ultimately approved by the Committee with significant changes. If enacted by the House and Senate, it would renew the Office of National Drug Control Policy (the so-called drug czar’s office) for five more years.

The House Government Reform Committee:

The Drug Policy Alliance launched a national campaign to urge the Committee to reform the bill, especially the provisions allowing the White House to use anti-drug money for partisan political purposes. A broad range of organizations – from the ACLU to the National Taxpayers Union — opposed the provision. Newspapers from the Orange County Register to the Baltimore Sun have editorialized against it. Eight national groups, including Common Cause, Taxpayers for Common Sense and the National Taxpayers Union sent a letter to the Committee urging members “to add provisions…;explicitly prohibiting the media campaign from being used to influence elections and legislation.”

Although very important, drug policy experts believe the Committee’s reform do not go far enough. For example, the reform of the ban on providing people convicted of drug offenses with financial aid still leaves tens of thousands of poor and middle-class Americans without the ability to go to college. However, it was the first ever rollback of the controversial program blocking aid to students who received drug convictions. Drug Policy Alliance thanked Representatives Mark Souder (R-IN) and Elijah Cummings (D-MD) for the step but also vowed to continue fighting for full repeal.

The anti-drug media campaign, a proven failure, was renewed with money – over a billion dollars over the next five years – that experts believe would be better spent on drug treatment, after-school programs and other prevention programs that cost less and are proven to work. Every study of the media campaign by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has found the ads to be ineffective in reducing youth drug use. NIDA’s most recent studies have found that the ad campaign not only fails to reduce drug use, it may actually make youth more likely to use marijuana in the future. According to NIDA, the ads may give youth the perception that drug use is common among their peers; and may also trigger what psychologists call “reactance” — the more someone is told what not to do, the more they want to do it. Other experts believe the ads are so ridiculous and over-the-top that young people dismiss them outright, assuming they’re being lied to.

Recent rulings by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel indicate that the Committee’s attempt to reign in the power of the drug czar to lobby and campaign at taxpayer expense don’t go far enough. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) recently ruled that the Hatch Act, a federal law designed to keep federal officials from campaigning at taxpayer expense, does not apply to ballot measure campaigns. OSC ruled that Drug Czar John Walters could legally use the power of his office to campaign against local and state drug-related ballot measures he doesn’t like, including spending taxpayer money on campaign trips. OSC even ruled John Walters could use the threat of withholding or giving federal funds to state agencies to coerce state officials into opposing certain ballot measures.

“The Government Reform Committee took a step forward towards reducing the collateral damage of the War on Drugs to students and taxpayers, but much more needs to be done,” said Bill Piper. “The ban on giving financial aid to anyone convicted of a drug offenses needs to be fully repealed, and Congress needs to put stricter limits on the drug czar’s ability to campaign and lobby on the taxpayer dime.”

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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