Publicly lying about pot isn’t as easy as it used to be. That’s the lesson White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (aka the Drug Czar’s office) Deputy Director Michael Botticelli learned earlier this week when he testified before U.S. House Subcommittee on Government Relations. Armed with what appeared to be crib notes from the days of Reefer Madness, Botticelli’s spurious anti-pot testimony immediately became the subject of Internet video fodder and mainstream media criticism. Even more tellingly, Botticelli’s comments drew stern rebukes from federal lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
In past years, public testimony from an anti-drug official before a relatively obscure federal subcommittee would have gone largely unnoticed; at best, reporters, pundits, and lawmakers alike would have responded to Botticelli’s reefer rhetoric with a collective yawn. But that was then and this is now. Today, 58 percent of the public nationwide endorses legalizing marijuana and the President of the United States publicly acknowledges that the herb is demonstrably safer than alcohol. Twenty states and the District of Columbia permit the use of medicinal marijuana. Two states regulate the use, production and retail of cannabis to those over age 21 and others are poised to do so before year’s end. In this environment, espousing pot propaganda from past years’ playbooks just isn’t going to cut it.
That is not to say Botticelli didn’t try his best to duck and dodge. He repeatedly denied answering questions from Democrat Reps. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) and Steve Cohen (D-TN) regarding the comparative harms of marijuana and alcohol — “You have to look at the totality of harm associated with this substance,” he responded — before finally conceding that the President’s assertion about pot posing fewer harms than booze is, in fact, accurate. He equivocated in response to inquiries from Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer as to whether his office knew of any incidences of lethal marijuana overdoses, before sheepishly acknowledging that he wasn’t aware of any. (“I don’t know that I know [of any],” he finally admitted.)
Botticelli refused to respond to followup questions by Rep. Blumenauer regarding whether he believed pot to be less addictive than either cocaine or methamphetamine, alleging instead, “I think that conversation minimizes the [alleged] harm [associated with the plant].” (In response to this reply, the Oregon Democrat countered: “You sir, represent what is part of the problem. How do you expect high school kids to take you seriously?”)
Nonetheless, Botticelli continued on relatively undeterred. He purported to be unaware that his agency operates under a federal mandate to oppose any and all efforts pertaining to the legalization of marijuana, including efforts to study the plant’s therapeutic use, but then acknowledged that such a mandate didn’t actually constrain ONDCP activities because, in his opinion, “we are a science-based office.” (He similarly alleged to be unaware of Harry Anslinger, the 1930s architect of federal pot prohibition.)
Botticelli remained tight-lipped regarding questions as to whether ONDCP was aware of any scientific data substantiating the claim that pot is a so-called “gateway drug.” (“Focusing on cannabis as gateway drug obviates the overall harms of the drug,” Botticelli replied.) He continually clung to the claim that his office seeks to treat marijuana as a “public health related issue,” all the while refusing to respond to questions from Reps. Connolly, Elijah Cummings (D-MD), and Danny Davis (D-IL) pertaining to the 750,000 arrests made annually for cannabis offenses, the growing racial disparity of these arrests, and the long-term adverse consequences associated with these arrests.
Notably, congressional criticism in response to Botticelli’s testimony weren’t limited to those on the political left. While many Democrats questioned ONDCP’s inability to view cannabis as anything other than public enemy #1, several House Republicans, including the subcommittee’s chair John Mica (R-FL), claimed that the agency isn’t doing enough to stem the rising tide of marijuana law reform and the public’s growing acceptance of the plant.
“We have the most schizophrenic policy I have ever seen,” Rep. Mica told Botticelli in regards to Department of Justice’s failure (thus far at least) to actively interfere in ongoing state efforts in Colorado and Washington to regulate commercial marijuana operations. “We’ve gone from ‘just say no’ ‘to I didn’t inhale’… to ‘just say maybe’ or ‘go ahead,’” he complained.
Ohio Republican Michael Turner also took aim at ONDCP’s apparent unwillingness to publicly campaign against marijuana legalization initiatives. (While such lobbying by a federal agency may violate the federal Hatch Act, the agency under previous drug czars, namely John Walters and Barry McCaffrey, did so unabashedly.) Botticelli’s response was that his office’s present mission is largely to coordinate anti-drug and prevention efforts with grassroots allies and to provide information, largely via its website, and not to specifically lobby voters.
Yet despite the double-barreled criticism targeting Botticelli and his anti-drug agency, members of neither party took time during Tuesday’s hearing to question why ONDCP, which was established by Congress in 1988 and possesses an estimated $427 million annual budget, continues to exist at all. They should. According to a March 2013 General Accounting Office report, ONDCP has failed to show any progress in its efforts to reduce illicit drug use and its consequences. Now, with members of both political parties taking aim at and publicly expressing their displeasure with the agency — albeit for different reasons — the timing may be right for a successful bipartisan effort to finally defund the White House’s anti-drug office altogether.
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