Drug Czar Should Be a Cabinet-Level Position | Opinion

On the morning of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush's nominee to be director of national drug control policy, or drug czar, was preparing for his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The senior U.S. senator from Delaware, Joe Biden, was on the Amtrak from Wilmington, expecting a rather uneventful day in the committee hearing room.

For obvious reasons, that hearing did not proceed on 9/11, but when it finally happened, about a month later, a determined Senator Biden spoke first, stating, "I have argued that Cabinet-level status is necessary to give the position visibility commensurate with the depth of our nation's drug problem, providing our drug czar the clout to stop interagency feuding, fight for budgetary resources, and decertify inadequate agency drug budgets."

President Bush did end up giving his drug czar Cabinet-level status, as his predecessor Bill Clinton had. So, then, it is rather strange that more than 20 years after that hearing, and after millions more people have been affected by addiction, the now-president has ignored calls to elevate the position once again to the Cabinet. Amid today's unprecedented addiction epidemic, it's time for that to change.

The drug czar, who leads the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), coordinates the nation's response to the drug crisis, in part by crafting the National Drug Control Strategy and certifying the budgets of the federal drug control agencies. ONDCP coordinates the drug-related efforts of 19 federal agencies, many of which have their own seats in the Cabinet. Cabinet-level status would empower the drug czar to cut through bureaucratic red tape, allowing them to better lead a whole-of-government response to our nation's drug crisis.

As a member of the Cabinet, the drug czar would have equal standing with the leaders of other federal departments and agencies. They would be free to call the secretary of state about the international scheduling of drugs or the attorney general about prosecuting drug cartels. But as an official outside the Cabinet, they lack the standing to coordinate efforts with the higher-ranking leaders above them. The ever-evolving drug crisis may be overlooked during Cabinet meetings with the president and other senior leaders.

Operating outside of the Cabinet also limits the drug czar's ability to work with the president, though they are still formally tasked with being the president's principal adviser on drug policy. Drug policy issues are relegated to the back burner when there is no Cabinet-level official in place who is solely focused on addressing them.

Joe Biden at Cabinet meeting
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 5: (L-R) Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra, Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland and Secretary of State Antony Blinken look on as U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during a cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House January 5, 2023 in Washington, DC. On Sunday, President Biden will visit the U.S.-Mexico border. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Recognizing that the drug czar's removal from the Cabinet undercuts the federal response to the drug crisis, 55 members of Congress recently sent a bipartisan letter to President Biden, calling on him to elevate the position into his Cabinet. They argued, "re-elevating ONDCP to the Cabinet will allow it to marshal the full resources of the federal government against this scourge of overdoses and demonstrate to the Congress and the American people your commitment to ending it."

Moreover, the U.S. Commission on Combating Synthetic Opioid Trafficking––which included five sitting members of President Biden's Cabinet––also recommended that the drug czar "be elevated to a Cabinet-level position to support its role as the central authority for policymaking and interagency coordination on all drug policy matters."

Americans agree that addressing the drug crisis is of vital importance. A February 2023 poll found that 53 percent of Americans believe reducing the availability of drugs should be a top priority for President Biden and Congress. Placing the drug czar in the Cabinet would further signal President Biden's commitment to addressing the drug crisis, much like how he signaled his commitment to science by elevating the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to his Cabinet.

We need a strong ONDCP to lead our government's efforts to reduce drug use and its consequences—an ONDCP with the budget, authority, and stature to make a difference during these difficult times. We couldn't agree more with then-senator Biden's words from that 2001 hearing, when he said, "the drug czar must be on equal footing with the rest of the president's Cabinet."

Cabinet status matters. The president knows it. It's time his administration puts this knowledge into practice.

Dr. Kevin Sabet is a former senior drug policy advisor to the Obama administration and currently serves as president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana. His latest book, Smokescreen: What the Marijuana Industry Doesn't Want You to Know, is available everywhere books are sold. Patrick Kennedy served as a Democratic member of the United States House of Representatives from Rhode Island's First Congressional District from 1995 to 2011.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.