07/30/17 Doug McVay

The House Oversight Committee looks at reauthorization of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and the Government Accountability Office examines mismanagement of a federal program that puts military weapons into the hands of local police.

Century of Lies
Sunday, July 30, 2017
Doug McVay
Drug War Facts
Download: Audio icon col073017.mp3



JULY 30, 2017


DEAN BECKER: The failure of drug war is glaringly obvious to judges, cops, wardens, prosecutors, and millions more now calling for for decriminalization, legalization, the end of prohibition. Let us investigate the Century Of Lies.

DOUG MCVAY: Hello, and welcome to Century Of Lies. Century Of Lies is a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

On July 26th, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing on the Office of National Drug Control Policy: Reauthorization in the 115th Congress. The hearing was chaired by Representative Trey Gowdy, a Republican from South Carolina. The ranking Democrat, Elijah Cummings from Maryland, wasn't there so the Democratic side was led by Representative Gerald Connolly from Virginia.

Today we're going to hear parts of that hearing so we can take a look at how this new edition of the drug war is shaping up. Let's just start with the opening statements from first Representative Gowdy and then Representative Connolly.

REPRESENTATIVE TREY GOWDY (R-SC): Over the past two decades, illicit drug use has emerged as a public health and safety crisis, with overdoses becoming the leading cause of injury or death in the United States. Opioids, specifically heroin and prescription pain relievers, are the cause of most overdose deaths in the United States, with the death rate more than doubling since the year 2000.

In South Carolina, which is where I'm from, at least 95 people died from heroin in 2015, which is almost twice as many as the previous year, and more than 560 died from the abuse of prescription opioids over the same period of time. The epidemic is growing, and lives are at stake, literally. It is imperative our nation maintain a strong coordinated effort across the federal government to combat drug abuse from design, manufacture, distribution, prescription, and consumption.

In 1988, Congress established the Office of National Drug Control Policy as part of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, to coordinate drug programs across the federal government, advise the administration on national and international drug control policies, and create and oversee the national drug control budget.

ONDCP is uniquely equipped to address what role the federal government can play in determining what kinds of clinical, social welfare, and economic programs could impact and reverse drug abuse problems in our country. ONDCP was last authorized in 2006, the authorization lapsed in 2010, but the Office has continued to receive appropriations each year.

In December 2015, this Committee held a hearing to discuss various proposals for reauthorization. We heard from the then-Director, who testified combating the abuse of prescription drugs was a top priority for the agency. However, since then, ONDCP has failed to produce a formal national drug control strategy, and a national drug control budget, which is supposed to be released no later than February First each year.

In the meantime, deaths due to opioid overdoses have only increased in the US in 2016. No office is perfect, god knows Congress certainly is not, but it is our responsibility nonetheless to see that deadlines are met, particularly statutory deadlines, resources are well spent, and the leadership that can be provided nationally is being provided. There is a prevention aspect, a treatment aspect, an education aspect, an enforcement aspect, a punishment aspect, and an oversight aspect.

The federal government has long occupied a space as it relates to both the illicit use of legal drugs, and the use of illegal drugs. Today we will have an opportunity to consider options for reauthorizing ONDCP, and learn about how this agency can work for the goal of reducing and alternately eliminating our nation's opioid crisis.

We will also examine how ONDCP can help mitigate the significant harm communities across America have felt as a result of our nation's opioid crisis. There are many areas worthy of exploration, and we thank all of our witnesses for appearing before the Committee. We look forward to your testimony as we consider next steps for reauthorization. With that, I would recognize my friend from Virginia.

REPRESENTATIVE GERALD CONNOLLY (D-VA): I thank the Chairman, and I want to thank him personally for having this hearing. I also want to thank him personally for his absolute willingness to accommodate our witnesses, and to hear the case for why we felt, especially Mister Flattery being added, really would add a dimension of a personal story that Mister Flattery has courageously been willing to share, and I just thank my friend from South Carolina, and this is an area where we can find common ground, where bipartisan cooperation must occur, and I know that the Chairman is committed to doing it, as am I.

We're in the midst of a national public health emergency. The opioid epidemic has taken thousands, tens of thousands of lives, across America, and unfortunately shows no signs of ending. Every day, every day, 91 Americans die from an opioid overdose. This epidemic doesn't care where you live, or what political party you belong to. Crisis has touched every corner of our nation.

Where I come from, northern Virginia, is no exception. Fairfax County, I chaired for five years, reported more than a hundred drug related deaths last year. Prince William County, the other county I represent, reported 52. These are astronomical numbers by our normal standards.

Today we have on our panel Don Flattery, a father from Fairfax County, and his wife has joined him here today, too. His son, their son, Kevin, tragically lost his life to opioid overdose two years ago, three years ago. Kevin was a graduate of the University of Virginia. He aspired to a career in filmmaking, but he became addicted to Oxycontin because of a medical prescription, and a particular medical condition. And he died at the age of 26.

Mister Flattery's been an outspoken advocate of the need to address this crisis, and we all welcome his testimony here today.

Every day, people across the country die from drug addiction. Families are torn apart, Americans are suffering. The crisis cannot wait. As members of Congress, we've got to do everything we can to assist and ameliorate and reverse this crisis.

Unfortunately, we're not sensing that same sense of urgency from the Administration. On the campaign trail, President Trump repeatedly promised action. He said, and I quote, we're going to help the people that are seriously addicted, we're gonna help those people, unquote. But we're six months into the Administration and the President has still not appointed a drug czar to lead the Office of National Drug Control Policy, nor has the Administration produced a national drug control strategy.

Instead, what the President's done is propose cutting the programs that are already working. His proposed budget would cut $370 million to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which provides grants for opioid overdose drugs, mental health, and prevention programs.

In the midst of a national emergency, we cannot accept that.

The President's efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act also would have devastating effects on Americans suffering from drug addiction. The latest effort to repeal the ACA would take health insurance away from 2.8 million people with substance abuse disorders. Let me repeat that: 2.8 million.

Congress must not let that happen.

Additionally, repeal of the Affordable Care Act could also make it difficult for individuals with substance use disorders to find the help they need. Legislation repealing the bill would allow states the waive the ACA requirement that mental health and substance abuse treatment are part of the essential health services. This would leave many of those seeking help without insurance coverage on those areas, for the very treatment they desperately need.

We're here today to discuss reauthorization of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. This Office plays a critical role in coordinating the federal response to our nation's drug epidemic. The Office manages a budget of more than $370 million, and coordinates the related activities of 16 different federal departments and agencies.

ONDCP also administers two federal grant programs. Communities in my district for example have been fortunate to receive assistance from what's called the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, which provides grants to localities and states, and tribal areas, to counter drug trafficking activities.

In 2010, we saw a shift to emphasizing public health based services within the national drug control strategy. I look forward to hearing more about the importance of a comprehensive approach to this challenge. Prevention and treatment are important tools, working together as the Chairman suggested, in how we approach this.

What is also important is ensuring that any national drug control strategy is based on empirical evidence, and one that prioritizes results over prior beliefs or ideology. Evidence should always guide public policy, particularly when addressing matters of public health and safety. We've witnessed the perils of failing to follow that prescription in our marijuana policies, and cannot afford to repeat such costly mistakes.

This Committee held a number of hearings on that topic in the last several years, and each time I noted we have no empirical evidence that justifies marijuana as classified as a Schedule One drug. In fact, the US National Institute on Drug Abuse, NIDA, which for years was the sole federal entity that controlled access to the federal government's lone research supply of marijuana, was unwilling to fund or conduct any federal research into the question of whether marijuana might have positive benefits.

This lack of empirical evidence to support our policy has led us down a dark path wherein our national drug policy has provided cover for arresting all too many minority Americans for nonviolent offenses at rates up to eight times those of white Americans, and filling our prisons beyond maximum capacity, scarring them and their families, often for life. We've got to rethink that approach. And, it's got to be empirical based.

I want to thank our panelists for being here today, Mister Chairman, for their contributions to the Office of National Drug Control Policy and their personal contributions to this dialogue, and I want to reiterate my commitment to cooperate with you, Mister Chairman, and our mutual staffs, to make sure that we are aggressively addressing this critical issue, that is now afflicting our country. Thank you so much, I yield back.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Representative Gerald Connolly, a Democrat from Virginia, preceded by House Oversight Committee chair Trey Gowdy, Republican from South Carolina. They held a hearing on July 26 on the reauthorization of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

You're listening to Century of Lies, a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

We're listening today to a hearing by the House Government Oversight Committee on reauthorization of ONDCP. One of the witnesses was acting drug czar Richard Baum. The committee members weren't terribly impressed with Baum, which is not surprising because he's really not very impressive. Here's a short exchange between Baum and Representative Connolly:

REPRESENTATIVE GERALD CONNOLLY: Mister Baum, this is a hearing on the reauthorization of your office. Has the Administration, or has your office, submitted a draft reauthorization bill to Congress?

RICHARD BAUM: Um, Mister Connolly, we have not, but we do have some considered thoughts, and would be happy to discuss some of those, we'd also --

REPRESENTATIVE GERALD CONNOLLY: Well, we need a reauthorization bill from somebody, even if we decide to go a different direction. Any idea when it might be submitted? I mean, the Chairman pointed out that I think the last reauthorization was 2006. So it's --


REPRESENTATIVE GERALD CONNOLLY: -- grown stale, we heard Doctor Humphreys point out we started out originally as a crack cocaine focus, things have changed, reauthoziation's got to take cognizance of that. We want to be supportive, but we've got to have some kind of timeframe in which you're going to -- not you personally -- the Office and the Administration are going to interact with the Congress, that ultimately has to do the reauthorization.

RICHARD BAUM: I think we --

REPRESENTATIVE GERALD CONNOLLY: Any idea when we might see a draft?

RICHARD BAUM: I don't want to give you a timeline but I can tell you this: I've studied the issue very closely. We know what we need to do.


RICHARD BAUM: We can put together a reauthorization bill and work with our partners in the Administration and get something to the Congress relatively rapidly, so I --


RICHARD BAUM: -- look forward to the collaboration --

REPRESENTATIVE GERALD CONNOLLY: I don't presume to speak for the Committee, but I think as you can hear on a bipartisan basis, we're seized with this mission, and urgency, and we, I hope you'll take it back, we want to see a reauthorization.

RICHARD BAUM: We want to see it too --

REPRESENTATIVE GERALD CONNOLLY: We're happy to help, but -- okeh.

RICHARD BAUM: We're eager to move out on it.

REPRESENTATIVE GERALD CONNOLLY: Likewise, we need a strategy. Any idea when a strategy will be submitted to the Congress?

RICHARD BAUM: I have a very precise idea.


RICHARD BAUM: I will be happy to discuss it and I know Mister Gowdy raised it as well. We're developing a strategy now. You know, I do want to say that I take the deadlines, the, the statutory deadlines extremely seriously, and I know what the deadline is, February First. In the Trump Administration, we are developing a strategy. We have a draft. We're consulting both formally in -- in terms of letters to Members of Congress. I've been traveling, holding meetings, I'm holding interagency meetings --


RICHARD BAUM: We are working a comprehensive strategy. Yeah.

REPRESENTATIVE GERALD CONNOLLY: I'll stipulate all that. I, look, I only have five minutes.

RICHARD BAUM: Yeah, sure.


RICHARD BAUM: The deadline's February First, and the, uh, of next year, and there is an issue with, we are required to wait until the President's budget comes out, but sometimes is a few weeks after, but, early next year you will have a comprehensive drug strategy from the Administration --


RICHARD BAUM: -- covering the entire scope of the issues.

REPRESENTATIVE GERALD CONNOLLY: Let me invite you, even in draft form, if you can, to share it, because I think we want to be partners, and the urgency of the subject, you know, I think demands executive and legislative branch cooperate as much as we can, so, that strategy, you know, I hope will reflect the realities so many members are experiencing in their respective districts. And so we'd be glad to work with you, but we've got to have some kind of draft to start with.

RICHARD BAUM: We will --

REPRESENTATIVE GERALD CONNOLLY: Likewise, what about the appointment of the Director, and, I think you're perfect, you're my constituent, how could we do any better than you? But, but we still don't have a -- it's been six months, and you're not alone, there are a lot of vacancies in the executive branch, but this one's pretty critical. Any idea when we might hear a name floated, let alone actually someone nominated?

RICHARD BAUM: Well, thank you for that strong endorsement, appreciate that. Uh, I, I --

REPRESENTATIVE GERALD CONNOLLY: I won't help you with Donald Trump, but --

RICHARD BAUM: They are -- I am -- I --

REPRESENTATIVE GERALD CONNOLLY: I can badmouth you if that would help.

RICHARD BAUM: Uh, you know, I came to this --

REPRESENTATIVE GERALD CONNOLLY: Hey Donald, this man's a loser! Don't do it!

RICHARD BAUM: I got a -- can I take back my time now?


RICHARD BAUM: Uh, no, I --

REPRESENTATIVE GERALD CONNOLLY: It's actually my time, but go ahead.

RICHARD BAUM: We uh, we, we appreciate the thought. We know that they're working on filling these positions, it's a critical position, and as soon as we have something to report, you'll be the first to know.

REPRESENTATIVE GERALD CONNOLLY: Ah, well, that's, that's so comforting. All right, thank you.

DOUG MCVAY: There was something of a surprise at the end of the hearing. Chairman Gowdy and Representative Connolly, neither of whom are members of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, went after Baum on the subject of medical marijuana. This you've got to hear.

REPRESENTATIVE TREY GOWDY: In case my mom is watching, I want to be really clear. I'm not advocating for legalization of marijuana. I'll be very, very clear about that. However, I don't understand why it's a Schedule One. It's certainly not treated as a inherently dangerous substance for which there is no medicinal value, it takes a tractor trailer full of marijuana to even trigger a mandatory minimum under our drug laws. So, is there any appetite for researching whether or not it should remain a Schedule One drug?

RICHARD BAUM: Uh, Congressman, um, the, the, the Administration doesn't have a position on that, but I'm happy to dialogue with your office. Let me just briefly say that we strongly support research on medical use of marijuana, and if there are obstacles that we see that prevent good research, we want to address those obstacles, because if there are component elements of marijuana that could be put through the FDA process and turned into medicines that could help people in this country, we want to do that.

So we do think there is some potential, and we support research on the subject.

REPRESENTATIVE TREY GOWDY: Well, just so everyone's clear, methamphetamine is scheduled what?

RICHARD BAUM: I believe it's Schedule ... Two.

REPRESENTATIVE TREY GOWDY: Two. Cocaine is scheduled what?


REPRESENTATIVE TREY GOWDY: Cocaine base is scheduled what?


REPRESENTATIVE TREY GOWDY: Two. So, it is scheduled lower than marijuana. And again, you can schedule something and still not have it scheduled as a One, and I would encourage the powers that be, whoever you need to consult with in the Administration, to at least explore whether or not it's scheduled correctly. Without being perceived as advocating for legalization.

RICHARD BAUM: Understood.

REPRESENTATIVE TREY GOWDY: With that, Mister Connolly, I will give a chance to -- I'm reluctant to say whatever you want, but I'm going to to give you a chance to, uh -- to conclude.

REPRESENTATIVE GERALD CONNOLLY: I thank my friend, and I, I actually want to follow up if I may on what you just asked. So, the point being made here, in some ways, Mister Baum, is, if you -- not you personally -- if the government, federal government, on this subject, marijuana, and how dangerous it is, has no credibility, because of the lack of serious empirical work, it threatens our whole drug policy's credibility. And you're seeing this happen on marijuana in the states. They're making decisions, Miss Norton talked about eight states, but there are over 25 states that have in some fashion, including my home state of Virginia, liberalized their laws, for medical reasons all the way to recreational reasons.

You, I think you'd have to confess to the Chairman's point, there was no empirical evidence to justify putting marijuana, fifty years ago, as a Schedule One drug. Who did that empirical evidence?

RICHARD BAUM: Sorry, could you repeat that, who did, who did what? Who made it Schedule --

REPRESENTATIVE GERALD CONNOLLY: There was no -- I am asserting, and you can feel free to try to contradict, there was in fact no empirical evidence to justify putting marijuana ahead of the drugs the Chairman just listed as a Schedule One drug. Fifty years ago.

I would sub -- you brought up the need to have empirical research before we start rushing pellmell to approve it for medical purposes, and I agree with you. But here's the problem, as I said in my opening statement, only one federal entity, NIDA, controls marijuana for legal purposes for experimentation, testing, and the like. Research. And NIDA's mission is all about proving the harms of something. They have a priori determined the outcome of research. Nobody thinks NIDA is an objective, neutral place to go to look at the good, the bad, and the indifferent about marijuana. It doesn't have that credibility.

So if we're going to do what you suggest, we need to have a different entity, with credibility, where we're looking at objective evidence, and science. And then we can determine, well, where does marijuana work? Mister Humphreys made the point that there's a more lethal, or stronger, more fortified, versions of marijuana coming out that concern us. But, we put a lot of people in jail, and we've treated this like it's more dangerous than cocaine and the other substances the Chairman has -- and, it's had huge consequences, based on very little scientific evidence.

I'm not arguing for the legalization either. I agree with my friend from South Carolina. I'm not going there. But neither can I justify the current policy of treating it as the world's most dangerous drug, with its classification. You can feel free to respond and I'm done.

RICHARD BAUM: Congressman, I, I, I understand the point that you're making. I would love to go with you in your district to talk to police, uh, police chiefs and sheriffs, I think in reality on the street, police, sheriffs, they don't treat marijuana the way they treat heroin and fentanyl. So I think in practice, there is a prioritization of the most deadly drug threats.

REPRESENTATIVE TREY GOWDY: I think -- I actually think that's his point, is that law enforcement doesn't, our sentencing scheme does not, methamphetamine and marijuana are not treated the same from the sentencing standpoint, but yet marijuana is considered to be inherently dangerous with no medicinal value, therefore a Schedule One, and it would just be helpful, again, to Mister Connolly's point, for us to have some consistency, or at least be able to explain why certain drugs are scheduled One, and others are not, and, you know, we can save that for, for another day.

And again, that's coming from two people that are not advocating for the legalization, just for some common sense in how it's scheduled.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Congressman Trey Gowdy and Congressman Gerald Connolly, going after Richard Baum, the acting drug czar. That was from a hearing before the House Government Oversight committee, which was held in late July. They were discussing reauthorization of the ONDCP.

While we have time on today's show, the Government Accountability Office released a report recently on continuing problems with the federal 1033 program. That's a program by which local law enforcement agencies can obtain surplus military equipment. The 1033 program became notorious after the events in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, following the police murder of Michael Brown.

At that time, through the federal 1033 program, local police departments were able to get equipment that has no place in civilian law enforcement and should never be in the hands of domestic police agencies, including tracked armored vehicles, weaponized aircraft, and high-calibre weapons including fifty calibre machine guns. All this equipment was being given away for the cost of shipping.

You may recall that following the Ferguson riots, public outrage over the 1033 program forced the Obama administration to adopt a number of recommendations that limited what the feds could give out. You could be forgiven for thinking that the worst abuses had been dealt with, because that's certainly what the administration and some members of Congress, as well as many police officials, were hoping people would think. But unfortunately, it's just not the case.

What the government did was set up two lists, one of prohibited equipment, and another of controlled equipment that agencies could still obtain. Armored vehicles are still being given out, only it's the ones that run on wheels rather than tank treads. Aircraft and drones are still available, just they don't come with weapons already installed. And weapons themselves are still being given out like candy, just they have to be smaller than fifty calibre, and that includes a lot of serious firepower, assault rifles, automatic weapons. Make no mistake, the federal 1033 program is alive and kicking.

And now for the scary part: the GAO, as part of its investigation into 1033 program management, was able to set up a fictitious federal law enforcement agency, and register it with the DLA's Law Enforcement Support Office, the office which administers the 1033 program. Through that fictitious agency, GAO investigators were able to obtain $1.2 million in “controlled” military surplus equipment. Obtained as in, the investigator went to the warehouse, picked up the boxes, loaded them up, and drove away.

Now for more on this, let's hear from the GAO itself, in its recent podcast.

SARAH KACZMAREK: And not just anybody is supposed to be able to get access to the program, right?

ZINA MERRITT: That's correct.

SARAH KACZMAREK: Okay, so, Wayne how did you go about testing how you can get access to the program?

WAYNE MCELRATH: The way that we tested the controls relative to this program is that we established a fake law enforcement organization as Zina indicated. We then submitted our application and bidded on those items.

SARAH KACZMAREK: And, what were you able to obtain?

WAYNE MCELRATH: Well, we actually had access to the full range of excess surplus military items that were available but we chose or bid on training rifles, simulated pipe bombs, scopes, night vision goggles, things that weren't exactly lethal.

SARAH KACZMAREK: And tell me about the total amount that you were able to get ahold of.

WAYNE MCELRATH: We were able to obtain approximately 100 items that totaled a value of approximately 1.2 million.

SARAH KACZMAREK: And these were things that you shouldn't have been able to get as a fake law enforcement agency.

WAYNE MCELRATH: As a private individual, we should not have had access to these items.

SARAH KACZMAREK: Zina, earlier you told me how this program is supposed to work, and clearly it's not working that way. What would you say are the main problems here?

ZINA MERRITT: The biggest problem is that DLA's internal control processes for this program were really broken. We found, for example, that when we applied for the program as a fake organization, no one ever even called us to verify information. They didn't attempt to come out to the location to visit us.

Secondly, when the investigators went to the location, they were actually able to get the items without presenting the proper identification.

Third, they were able to get a quantity of items that wasn't consistent with what we bid for, actually we got more items.

And fourth, we found that they just don't have a framework in order to do fraud mitigation at all stages of the program. Essentially, that puts any organization at risk of this happening again.

DOUG MCVAY: That was a recording from the Government Accountability Office, talking about its recent investigation into mismanagement of the federal 1033 program. The 1033 program allows domestic law enforcement agencies to obtain surplus military equipment, including weapons and items that could be easily converted into weapons.

And that's it for this week. Thank you for joining us. You have been listening to Century of Lies, I've been your host Doug McVay. Century of Lies is a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. The executive producer of the Drug Truth Network is Dean Becker. Drug Truth Network programs are also available via podcast, the URLs to subscribe are on the network home page at DrugTruth.net.

The Drug Truth Network is on Facebook, please give its page a like. Drug War Facts is on Facebook too, give its page a like and share it with friends. Remember: Knowledge is power. Follow me on Twitter, I'm @DougMcVay and of course also @DrugPolicyFacts.

We'll be back next week with thirty more minutes of news and information about the drug war and this century of lies. For now, for the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay saying so long. So long!

For the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay asking you to examine our policy of drug prohibition: the century of lies. Drug Truth Network programs archived at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.