Drug Czar Propaganda Stalled in House Committee

An effort by House Republicans, led by Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), to explicitly enable the Office of National Drug Control Policy to use its billion-dollar anti-drug advertising campaign to engage in partisan campaigns against political candidates or voter initiatives that favor drug legalization has run into a buzzsaw of opposition on Capitol Hill. The measure, part of the authorization bill for ONDCP spending, was supposed to have been voted on in the House Government Reform Committee Thursday, but has now been delayed at least until after the Memorial Day recess because GOP and Democratic members could not reach a compromise on the controversial language.

The authorization bill also contains language that would strip federal anti-drug funds from law enforcement in states with medical marijuana laws and transfer those funds to the DEA. That language may not survive, said reformers who are monitoring the legislation.

Lobbyists from the Marijuana Policy Project and the Drug Policy Alliance, who led the effort to defeat the propaganda measure, declared Thursday's action a victory -- of sorts. "We've headed off the evil empire for the moment," said MPP director of communications Bruce Mirken.

"This was an initial victory," said DPA director of legislative affairs Bill Piper. "That they postponed the vote was significant," he told DRCNet. "They had the bill on a fast track, but with all the noise we made, all the phone calls members got, they couldn't push it through, and now we think we will get a change in the language."

Under the propaganda provision, authored by incorrigible drug warrior Souder, the existing law that bars ONDCP from using its $195 million per year anti-drug media campaign for partisan political purposes would not apply when ONDCP is acting "to oppose an attempt to legalize the use" of any illegal drug. With open wording like that, the drug czar could legally campaign against sitting office-holders, such as Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), who has sponsored federal medical marijuana legislation or any candidate who campaigns on reforming the drug laws.

Stealthily tucked into the voluminous ONDCP authorization bill, the language went unnoticed until spotted by reformers. Some Democratic members felt "sandbagged," said DPA's Piper. "This has upset a lot of Democrats, who suddenly realized that if it passed, the Bush White House would have $195 million to use in partisan political campaigns next year," he said. "Any party would have a blank check to run taxpayer-funded ads against their opponents -- all they have to do is claim they're fighting drug legalization."

"While there were other issues at play here," said MPP director of government affairs Steve Fox, "the sticking point was the ad campaign and whether the drug czar could use those ads for political purposes. Thanks to the efforts of MPP and DPA, as well as a nicely-timed front page story yesterday in Roll Call, there is a strong and growing awareness of this issue among the members," he told DRCNet.

Feeling the heat, Souder earlier this week agreed to seek compromise language with committee Democrats, but that effort failed as the committee adjourned without a vote. The compromise language would have barred ONDCP from "expressly" advocating for or against a candidate or ballot measure, a move that would have allowed Walters to say "Candidate Smith supports making drugs available to children," but not "Vote against Candidate Smith because he supports making drugs available to children."

That wasn't enough to calm down the Democrats. "Some members felt there wasn't even anything to compromise on, this bill was so egregious," said DPA's Piper.

The propaganda provision's genesis presumably lies in last fall's initiative campaigns. Drug czar Walters campaigned against a Nevada initiative sponsored by MPP that would have legalized the possession of up to three ounces of marijuana by adults, prompting the group to file state and federal complaints alleging that Walters violated Nevada campaign finance laws and federal anti-electioneering laws. One GOP committee staffer told Roll Call the language merely sought to protect the drug czar. "What we are simply trying to clarify is that the regular operation of the media campaign, when it gets into things that some people want to claim and construe as political, is not political," the aide said.

"Because of this ongoing legal battle between MPP and the drug czar, there is real concern among the Republicans that the drug policy reformers will win in court somewhere -- maybe even in the court of public opinion -- and their campaigns will be crippled," said Piper. "They are also concerned that their regular anti-marijuana ads could be construed as campaign ads even if they're not talking about a specific candidate or initiative."

The battle will be rejoined within a matter of weeks, and reformers are increasingly confident they can block the propaganda provision. "We have a strong chance of removing this," said Piper, "although we may end up with language explicitly saying that the anti-marijuana ads are okay, they're not campaign ads."

"We're going to keep up the pressure," said MPP's Fox. "We'll be reaching out to other groups outside the drug reform community. When you're doing this sort of lobbying, step one is creating public awareness. That has happened now, especially with everyone on the Hill reading the Roll Call article. Now we have to keep on top of this and see what sort of new language they try. If it's more bad language, we'll fight that, too."

While the authorization bill provides funds for the anti-marijuana media campaign, there is little evidence the campaign is serving its stated purpose. The presidential budget submission for the 2004 fiscal year noted that "The National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign has not demonstrated the results sought and does not yet have adequate performance measures and related goals." Walters himself admitted earlier this year that "this campaign isn't reducing drug use."

That's right, said DPA's Piper. "All they're really doing is stating explicitly that this campaign is not about reducing teen drug use but about advancing a political agenda. Interestingly, one provision that was stripped out of the bill was one that required local treatment and prevention contact information on the ads. Taking the two provisions together tells us they've given up on using the ads to reduce teen drug use and will turn the ads into a blatantly political operation."

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