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Do We Really Need a Drug Czar?

Michael D. Tanner

Last week, Representative Tom Marino withdrew from consideration
as drug czar, after reports emerged suggesting that he had played a
role in legislation making it easier to import Fentanyl, the
painkiller that has become a driving force behind America’s opioid
crisis. Most will chalk this up to another case of poor vetting by
the Trump administration and move on to speculation about the next
nominee. But maybe we should be asking another question:

Why do we need a drug czar in the first place?

Well, we will undoubtedly be told, the country is facing an
opioid epidemic. We have to do something. But even setting
aside the fact that we already have an “opioid czar” —
President Trump appointed New Jersey governor Chris Christie to
that position in March — the idea of a drug czar is
symptomatic of Washington’s belief that every problem must have a
government solution. Moreover, that solution must be undertaken by
the federal government, not the states, and should involve as much
bureaucracy and spending as possible. The drug czar oversees some
$31.4 billion in federal anti-drug programs. The fancy title is an
extra bonus.

The office spends
billions, to no avail. Maybe Congress should abolish it.

The appointment of any “czar” — the drug czar, the
bioethics czar, the auto-industry-recovery czar — is meant to
show how serious the government takes one societal problem or
another. Such symbolism would be costly in the best of cases. But
ever since its creation in 1988, the drug czar’s office —
officially the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP)
— has been the source of both scandal and bad policy.

In 2005, the GAO found that the drug czar’s office had violated
laws against domestic government propaganda by distributing
pre-packaged “news” stories without disclosing their origin. Nor
was this the first time that the office found itself in hot water
for its propaganda efforts. For instance, the FCC has ruled that
the ONDCP was violating agency rules by failing to disclose that it
was paying television networks to embed anti-drug messages in their

The ONDCP also appears to have frequently skirted
campaign-finance laws, using taxpayer money to campaign against
ballot initiatives that would legalize marijuana. However, despite
frequent complaints, the Federal Elections Commission has so far
held that the office does not have to disclose how much it has
spent trying to influence elections.

The drug czar also directly administers $380 million in federal
grant programs, with little oversight or accountability. These are
programs that even the White House Office of Management and Budget
has called duplicative and wasteful.

But most concerning is the fact that the head of the ONDCP
continues to act as the top general in the failed and
counterproductive War on Drugs. Ignoring all available evidence to
the contrary, the office continues to cling to the idea that it’s
best to treat drug use as a criminal problem rather than a
public-health issue.

Aside from the way such thinking can damage both lives and
communities — and contribute to racial disparities in the
criminal-justice system — the continued reliance on law
enforcement to solve our drug problems is often counterproductive.
For example, studies show that opioid use goes down when a state
legalizes marijuana. Yet the Office of National Drug Control Policy
remains the tip of the spear in the campaign against marijuana

Maybe, just maybe, it is time to take a step back and realize
that Washington is not the font of all wisdom — and that not
every problem in America requires its own federal office,
bureaucracy, or czar.

is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author
of Going for Broke: Deficits, Debt, and the
Entitlement Crisis