House Republicans anticipated smooth sailing for legislation to reauthorize the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), including its controversial antidrug media campaign. But Democrats rebelled in late May over provisions that would have allowed drug czar John Walters to use the publicly funded advertising as he saw fit to oppose state ballot initiatives or even specific candidates.
The ads, mostly on television, have stirred controversy since Walters took over and began running strident drugs-equal-terrorism spots that declare that personal use of marijuana supports terrorism. The House Government Reform Committee tabled action on HR 2086 after negotiations broke down over how far ONDCP could use its social marketing muscle to influence elections. The two parties will attempt some sort of compromise when the matter is considered during the first week in June, but it’s hard to see how the Republicans’ goal of allowing Walters sole discretion to use the ads to “oppose any attempt to legalize” drugs can be squared with Democrats’ opposition to even more overt White House electioneering than in the past. The media campaign cost taxpayers $930 million during its first five years; Republicans seek to boost its five-year funding through fiscal year 2008 to $1.02 billion. (Actual total media time and space will be closer to $2 billion since, by statute, ONDCP makes its ad buys at fifty cents on the dollar.)
By Walters’s lights, even allowing dying cancer or AIDS patients some pot to alleviate their pain is de facto legalization. Until drug reform lobbyists sounded the alarm and Democrats dug in their heels, starting this fall he could have used the ads to urge voters to reject initiatives permitting medical marijuana or mandating treatment rather than jail for nonviolent drug addicts. The ads might also have been used against such candidates as Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank and Texas Republican Ron Paul, who have introduced legislation banning federal prosecution of pot-using patients in states that have legalized medical cannabis. Said Steve Fox, director of government relations at the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), “It’s now clear that this media campaign is about politics, not prevention.” And, tossing aside seventy years of broadcasting law by exempting ONDCP from the requirement to identify itself as the ad sponsor, the proposed bill would shred the principle that viewers are entitled to know who’s attempting to persuade them.
Republicans offered a compromise provision that would have stipulated that the ads would not expressly advocate support for or defeat of a candidate or ballot initiative. But that didn’t fly, since the ads could still have described a candidate as soft on drugs. Said the Drug Policy Alliance’s (DPA) Bill Piper, associate director of national affairs (who caught the bill’s indirect language that would totally free ONDCP’s hand), “Anyone who knows campaign finance law knows that’s not any kind of real barrier.”