Updated at 8:15 p.m. ET
In an all-staff email to employees in the Office of National Drug Control Policy, acting Director Richard Baum shared some news he described as “very discouraging for our Nation’s effort to address drug abuse.” A draft document from the White House budget office, obtained by NPR, proposes nearly zeroing out funding for the ONDCP and fully eliminating several programs involved in fighting the opioid crisis. Leaked documents indicate about a 94 percent overall cut.
“These drastic proposed cuts are frankly heartbreaking,” wrote Baum, whose position is also referred to as “drug czar.” His email explained that the document was “pre-decisional” and could change. He asked that the information not be shared outside of the agency. But it quickly leaked out, causing alarm in the tightknit addiction help community and among lawmakers.
“We have a heroin and prescription drug crisis in this country, and we should be supporting efforts to reverse this tide, not proposing drastic cuts to those who serve on the front lines of this epidemic,” Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said in a statement.
The leaked document is what’s known in budget lingo as a “passback,” the proposal from the Office of Management and Budget for what should be included in the president’s budget. Agencies can appeal, and Baum wrote in his email that he and others have been trying.
“I want you to know that senior ONDCP staff have engaged, and continue to engage, with senior leadership in the White House Office of American Innovation and in OMB to address our agency’s budget concerns,” Baum wrote in the email to staffers. “These conversations are ongoing. We hope to turn this around.”
The document calls for reducing funding for ONDCP from $388 million in 2017 to $24 million in 2018, eliminating the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas grant program and the Drug-Free Communities Support Program. These are popular programs in states hit hard by the opioid crisis. The budget states these cuts would “reflect a smaller, more streamlined organization that can more effectively address drug control issues.”
Asked about the proposed cuts in Friday’s White House press briefing, Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “When it comes to the opioid epidemic, I think the president’s been extremely clear 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.”
A White House spokesman wouldn’t say when a final budget document would be released.
A budget outline released earlier this year made no mention of ONDCP, but it called for a $500 million increase in spending on opioid treatment and recovery. The government funding bill signed by Trump on Friday also included a boost in funds to deal with the crisis.
The head of the Addiction Policy Forum said the administration “has taken several positive steps to support recovery and treatment efforts,” but that the cuts “would undermine the good already accomplished.”
“I would urge the Administration to reconsider these cuts, and continue to build a comprehensive plan to help Americans suffering with substance use disorders and their families,” the statement from President and CEO Jessica Nickel added.
President Trump made combating the epidemic of opioid-related overdose deaths a central theme of his campaign, delivering a speech in mid-October 2016 outlining a detailed policy prescription.
But since Trump took office, advocates and lawmakers have expressed concern over a lack of action. In March, Trump signed an executive order creating the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. The order directed the commission to present a report within 90 days. However, the president has not yet appointed anyone to serve on the commission (though New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is supposed to chair it, has been holding meetings).
A White House spokesman, whom NPR has been asking about the commission, has responded for weeks with the same reply: “We don’t have any announcements at this time on that.”
Baum is the second acting drug czar in the Trump administration. Trump has yet to name his choice for director. For comparison, President Barack Obama’s first drug czar was confirmed by the Senate on May 7, 2009.
The ONDCP website, which was packed with information and resources during the Obama administration, was replaced when Trump took office with a message that says, “Check back soon for more information.” It hasn’t been updated since.