O(NDCP) Director, Where Art Thou? | Opinion

It was 1982, and Ronald Reagan wasn't having it.

A pesky young Democratic senator from one of the smallest states in the country was demanding the president do something about America's growing drug problem. In the previous 15 years, regular drug use had skyrocketed to levels the country had never seen.

"We need a drug czar, Mr. President," Joe Biden could often be heard saying at meetings with Reagan officials. A central figure was needed, the future president argued, to coordinate the activities of more than a dozen agencies fighting drugs—from the Coast Guard to the Health and Human Services Department. "We need one person to call the shots," Senator Biden said during a committee hearing in October 1982.

Reagan wasn't very interested. Adding more government bureaucracy didn't appeal to him, especially since his attorney general could be trusted to fight drugs. It took six more years for Reagan to acquiesce to the idea, and Joe Biden was finally satisfied.

That is why it is perplexing that, five months into the Biden presidency, we still don't have a new director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). Not even Bill Clinton, who initially tried to dodge the issue of drugs when he came into office, and shrunk the office by 80 percent, waited this long (he finally appointed police chief Lee Brown to the post in April of 1993).

Our nation is witnessing levels of drug overdose that far eclipse what was previously feared to be the height of the opioid epidemic. In fact, 2020 was the worst year on record for opioid overdose in every state across the country, a fact that has been lost on most of our political leaders. More than 90,000 lives were lost to drug overdose in our country last year—the most ever recorded in one year.

The coronavirus pandemic has certainly made the problem worse, but it's not wholly to blame. For several years now most people who want treatment for addiction can't get it. According to estimates from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, more than 21 million Americans needed substance abuse treatment in 2016—but only around 4.2 million received any.

joe biden kamala harris controversy
U.S. President Joe Biden gestures during his remarks, as Vice President Kamala Harris looks on, before a signing ceremony for the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act in the East Room of the White House on May 20, 2021 in Washington, DC.  The legislation, drafted in response to the increased violence against the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community during the Coronavirus pandemic, will create a new position in the Department of Justice to focus on the rise in hate crimes and provide resources to federal, state, and local jurisdictions to better report cases. ANNA MONEYMAKER / Staff/Getty Images

We also need better data. Encouragingly, the Centers for Disease Control has updated its system for reporting fatal drug overdoses, and emergency room datasets—defunded not long ago—have been funded again. Overall, however, as drug historian John Coleman has put it, "the data used by ONDCP and all other federal and state drug control agencies come from a handful of contractor-supplied surveys that are woefully obsolete and still using methodologies developed in the 1970s."

With imaginative thinking, ONDCP can lead a renaissance in drug policy that can save lives. Its pivotal role as administrator of two important programs—the prevention-focused Drug-Free Communities program, which coordinates with local coalitions around the country, and the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program, which monitors federal law enforcement efforts combatting drug trafficking—gives it greater leverage on the local level, where most drug policy is actually implemented.

In January of this year, President Joe Biden appointed Regina LaBelle, my friend and former colleague, to be the acting director of ONDCP. I was honored to work side by side with Regina during my time in the Obama administration, and her handle on drug policy is impressive. But the fact remains that, almost six months after her appointment as acting director, we still have received no word on when the Biden administration will nominate an official director for the ONDCP. And that is not for a lack of available talent. The administration has several impressive candidates to choose from, including LaBelle, and the well-respected Dr. Rahul Gupta, an experienced health leader hailing from West Virginia; and former congressman Patrick Kennedy, a longtime mental health and addictions advocate with a strong bipartisan record.

Only a confirmed director (ideally at the cabinet level, as was the case from 1993 to 2008) can get the attorney general or health secretary on the phone. Only a confirmed director can meet with heads of state and work on vital international cooperation issues (ever important in today's age of fentanyl overdoses). And only a confirmed director can have the ear of the president.

Given the severity of the drug crisis that carries on almost silently before us, the Biden-Harris administration must take an all-hands-on-deck approach. The administration's Statement of Drug Policy Priorities for Year One outlined the issue, but an ONDCP director is needed to enact those priorities to turn the tide and save lives.

The ONDCP will also need strong leadership to help administer the unprecedented level of funding that it will receive should the president's Budget Request be enacted. This leadership and the thorough enactment of the Biden-Harris administration's Drug Policy Priorities will only occur if President Biden officially nominates a Drug Czar.

As then-senator Biden urged the country some 40 years ago now, "We need one person to call the shots."

His words couldn't be more prescient today.

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, was published on April 20 by Simon & Schuster and is available everywhere books are sold.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.