Draft proposal shows the Trump administration may gut the drug czar’s office

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The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy has played a leadership role in the nation's efforts to fight the heroin epidemic. Photo from New Hampshire State Police Forensic Lab

Supporters argue the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy has played a leadership role in the nation’s efforts to fight the heroin epidemic. Photo from New Hampshire State Police Forensic Lab

The Trump administration is considering drastic cuts that would all but eliminate the Office of National Drug Control Policy, a White House official and agency email confirmed to the NewsHour Friday.

According to a draft proposal obtained by NewsHour, the Office of Management and Budget, led by Mick Mulvaney, has proposed cutting nearly all of the agency’s funds — from $388 million in fiscal year 2017 to $24 million in 2018 — to “streamline the organization and to shift focus from duplicative and burdensome administrative tasks.”

The White House did not immediately reply to NewsHour’s request for comment.

During Friday’s White House press conference, Principal Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked about the draft plan.

“When it comes to the opioid epidemic, I think the president’s been extremely clear. This is a top priority for him,” Sanders told reporters. “I wouldn’t get ahead of conversations about the budget. We haven’t had a final document.”

Without White House confirmation, it’s impossible to confirm whether or not the cuts will become policy. The floating of draft proposals, especially for potentially controversial ideas, has been a repeated tactic in the first months of the Trump Administration. A number of such drafts have not been enacted and the administration has at times later disavowed association with them. Here is the draft proposal obtained by the NewsHour.

The office, created in 1988 by President Ronald Reagan and Congress, has coordinated a national strategy to fight drug abuse. Since then, the office has worked to “to reduce illicit drug use, manufacturing, and trafficking, drug-related crime and violence, and drug-related health consequences,” according to the Federal Register. Still, in 2015 alone, more than 33,000 people died of opioid overdoses in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The proposal to gut the drug czar’s office echoes past criticism, saying the office duplicates efforts found elsewhere in federal government.

READ MORE: Here’s what Trump’s new executive order means for opioid addiction

Richard Baum, the office’s acting director, sent an all-staff email on Friday morning to confirm that the “drastic proposed cuts” are under consideration. The message was provided to the NewsHour by a White House official who asked not to be identified.

Richard Baum, the office’s acting director, sent an all-staff email on Friday morning to confirm that the “drastic proposed cuts” are under consideration.
“I have been encouraged by the Administration’s commitment to addressing the opioid epidemic, and the President’s personal engagement on the issue, both during the campaign and since he was sworn into office,” Baum said in the email. “However, OMB’s proposed cuts are also at odds with the fact that the President has tasked us with supporting his Commission on Combating [sic] Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis.”

“These drastic proposed cuts are frankly heartbreaking … I don’t want to see this happen,” Baum added.

The cut would kill two programs the office oversees: High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas, which coordinates information between federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement to stop the flow of drugs, and the Drug-Free Communities Support Program, which works with all levels of government to reduce substance abuse among youth.

The office would be funded at the current levels through Sept. 30, according to the emails.

Since February, following a report from the New York Times, rumors have swirled about whether the Trump administration planned to eliminate the national drug control policy office.

In March, President Donald Trump chose New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to lead a new national opioid commission.

READ MORE: In the war on heroin, Baltimore drug programs face an uncertain future

In a February interview with the NewsHour, Michael Botticelli, who directed the national control policy office during the Obama administration, said he found initial reports that the office was under threat “disturbing” and surprising after Trump “said he is going to continue to focus on this opioid issue and quite honestly was supported in large part in parts of the country that have been significantly impacted by the opioid epidemic.”

“It’s short-sighted,” he told the NewsHour. “It would diminish the administration’s focus on substance abuse issues. It would not save money, because without a single office who’s coordinating drug policy across the federal government, it will only create a very haphazard, inefficient approach.”

Here is the full text of the all-staff email sent by Richard Baum, acting director for the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Dear ONDCP FTE,

I’m afraid I have some news to share with you that is very discouraging for our Nation’s effort to address drug abuse, but more directly, to the dedicated staff of ONDCP. The information that is being shared with you is considered pre-decisional and should not be shared with anyone outside of the agency, including agency reps, detailees, contractors, interns, etc.

As you know, we are funded at our current level through September 30 of this year. However, the passback that was uploaded to MaxCollect by OMB reflects a nearly 95% reduction in ONDCP’s budget for FY 2018.

In addition to zeroing out our HIDTA and DFC programs, this passback allocates only $12,400,000 for Salaries and Expenses (S&E) – a decrease of $6,874,000 from FY 2017 – meaning we would be facing a Reduction in Force (RIF) and could lose up to 33 FTEs when factoring in lump sum payments for unused annual leave, severance pay, and unemployment benefits. OMB has proposed eliminating the Intelligence, Research, and Budget functions at the agency, as well as the Model State Drug Laws and Drug Court grant programs.

I have been encouraged by the Administration’s commitment to addressing the opioid epidemic, and the President’s personal engagement on the issue, both during the campaign and since he was sworn into office. However, OMB’s proposed cuts are also at odds with the fact that the President has tasked us with supporting his Commission on Combatting Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis.

These drastic proposed cuts are frankly heartbreaking and, if carried out, would cause us to lose many good people who contribute greatly to ONDCP’s mission and core activities.

I don’t want to see this happen.

I want you to know that senior ONDCP staff have engaged, and continue to engage, with senior leadership in the White House Office of American Innovation and in OMB to address our agency’s budget concerns. These conversations are ongoing. We hope to turn this around.

As I have said, this news is discouraging, and there is nothing I can say that will lessen its effect. At this point, I would encourage you not to panic, since these events are still unfolding. You are a highly trained and experienced group of professionals committed to dealing with a critical issue facing our country, and I am proud to have the opportunity to lead you. I know that you will continue to engage with our stakeholders and not lose sight of our core mission to address drug use and its consequences in the United States. I cannot say enough about how important each of you is in this regard, and I am very sorry about these developments.

I will keep an open dialogue with you and I plan to answer any and all questions and concerns, to the best of my ability, at Monday’s staff meeting.

Please accept my apologies for not delivering this difficult message in person. Do not hesitate to reach out to me directly between now and Monday, day or night, I will respond individually. I considered canceling the visit to NJ to meet with Governor Christie’s team, but I felt it was best to move forward with the work of the Commission to turn this epidemic around, as we concurrently work with our WH partners to preserve ONDCP and our programs, which will be critical in implementing the Commission’s recommendations. Additionally, today at 12:45pm, I will hold a conference call in the 5th floor conference room to discuss this issue and take questions.

Sincerely,

Rich

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