The draft budget plan comes as the nation is struggling with an escalating opioid epidemic. Ending opioid addiction was a centerpiece of Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, and he drew support from many of the rural areas and small working-class towns hit hardest by the drug crisis. In March, President Trump commissioned a new addiction task force to help combat the opioid crisis, tapping his friend and former rival New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) to lead the fight.
But in an email sent to full-time employees, Richard Baum, the acting director of the office, said the administration’s proposed cuts for the fiscal year that begins in October “reflects a nearly 95 percent” reduction in the agency’s budget. The proposed $364 million cut would leave a budget of just $24 million and eliminate its two major programs.
Baum wrote the cuts are “at odds with the fact that the President has tasked us with supporting his Commission on Combatting Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis.” He called them “drastic” and “frankly heartbreaking.”
Roughly half the office’s staff, or 33 full-time employees, would be eliminated, the memo said.
“That budget wouldn’t pay the heating bill at the Pentagon,” said Barry R. McCaffrey, a retired U.S. Army general, who headed the office under President Bill Clinton between 1996 and 2001. “It sends a terrible message. Why send this bizarre political signal in the middle of what is without question a major health-care crisis in America? It’s very strange.”
Established at the height of the nation’s cocaine epidemic in the late 1980s, the office has served a highly symbolic role as the coordinator of the nation’s drug war. It provided a national pulpit for its high-profile directors, known informally as “drug czars,” who have also included former education secretary William J. Bennett, former Florida governor Robert Martinez and former Houston mayor Lee Brown. The directors had budgetary authority and access to the Oval Office.
A coalition representing hundreds of drug prevention, law enforcement and health groups is planning to send a letter of protest Monday to the White House.
The office “brings essential expertise to the table on complex drug issues, expertise that would otherwise be missing or dispersed across multiple agencies,” said the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post. “It is more important than ever for ONDCP to remain a strong voice in the White House and a visible presence nationally.”
The groups include the National District Attorneys Association, Smart Approaches to Marijuana, and Young People in Recovery, an addiction-recovery advocacy group.
One of the office’s two signature efforts is the Drug-Free Communities Support Program, the nation’s largest drug-prevention initiative, which funds 5,000 local anti-drug coalitions. It enjoys broad bipartisan support.
The other is the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, which coordinates anti-drug-trafficking efforts by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.
The two programs are highly popular, and cutting them would face congressional opposition. Several members of Congress issued statements Friday condemning the proposed cuts, calling them shortsighted.
“I’ve known and worked with our drug czars for more than 20 years, and this agency is critical to our efforts to combat drug abuse in general, and this opioid epidemic, in particular,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said in a statement.
White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, when asked about reports Friday that the drug policy office would be severely cut, said: “When it comes to the opioid epidemic, the president has been extremely clear that this is a top priority for him. I certainly wouldn’t get ahead of conversations about the budget. We haven’t had a final document, and I think it would be ridiculous to comment on a draft version of something at this point.”
The White House has said it is working to eliminate areas of duplication and inefficiency. Budget officials already have proposed to do away with numerous programs across the government, including some that congressional Republicans support.
An outline of the draft proposal for the drug czar’s office said the fiscal 2018 budget “supports an effort to streamline” the office’s organization and “to shift focus from duplicative and burdensome administrative tasks.” It said the change will allow the office to focus its efforts to “better address the top drug threats, including the opioid epidemic.”
On Friday, the office's Web page, which appears on the White House website, had been taken down, with only these words left: "Check back soon for more information."
Katie Zezima, Damian Paletta, Kelsey Snell, Devlin Barrett, Brady Dennis and Alice Crites contributed to this report.