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Committee Drops Drug Czar Ad Budget Provision

In a sharp reversal, the House Government Reform Committee agreed Thursday to maintain legal provisions that prohibit a $1 billion federal anti-drug advertising budget from being used for partisan, political purposes.

In a bipartisan voice vote, the panel agreed to delete a provision that critics said would have allowed the federal drug czar to engage in partisan, political activity when opposing efforts to legalize or reform drug laws, including state efforts to decriminalize marijuana.

While the drug czar, John Walters, formally known as the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, would still be legally required to oppose efforts to legalize drugs, he would not be able to oppose ballot initiatives seeking to decriminalize medical marijuana with the resources of the annual $195 million advertising campaign intended to educate children about the dangers of drug use.

Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), who had authored the provision that would have allowed partisan use of the ad money, accused supporters of marijuana legalization efforts of distorting his attempt to clarify that the media campaign is not political.

“A small group who devotes their lives to marijuana want to claim that preventing kids from using marijuana is somehow partisan and political because apparently they consider that drug to be their ideology,” Souder said. “We tried in subcommittee to clarify that this extreme argument would not threaten the prevention activities of the media campaign — a minor provision that was blown wildly out of proportion by the same extremists and some in the media to suggest that the committee intention was to permit the use of the media campaign for activities that everyone in this room would agree are wholly improper and partisan. That was never my intention or the intention of this bill,” Souder said.

In addition to dropping the controversial provision, the committee agreed to add language that prohibits the use of media campaign funds to influence the success or failure of any candidate, ballot initiative, or legislative or regulatory proposal dealing with drug law reforms. The bill would also prohibit federal and elected officials from appearing in any anti-drug ads funded by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

“This is a major victory for the majority of Americans that favor a more compassionate and less expensive national drug policy,” said Bill Piper, associate director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Members of this committee should be thanked for working to ensure that federal bureaucrats don’t use taxpayer money to tell taxpayers how to vote.”

Walters has traveled the country under the authority of his office to campaign against state measures seeking to reform laws that criminalize marijuana. Maryland last month became the latest state to have a medical marijuana law, joining Hawaii, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, Colorado, Nevada and Maine.

Last fall in Nevada, Walters campaigned against a ballot initiative that would have largely decriminalized marijuana possession for adults. After the initiative was defeated, the Marijuana Policy Project filed a complaint with state election officials against Walters for failing to comply with Nevada’s campaign finance disclosure laws, which require “the reporting of contributions and expenses for every person or group of persons organized formally or informally who advocates the passage or defeat of a question or group of questions on the ballot at any election.”

In an April 21 opinion that found that Walters was likely immune from complying with state campaign laws as a federal official, the state’s attorney general, Brian Sandoval, nonetheless concluded, “It is unfortunate that a representative of the federal government substantially intervened in a matter that was clearly a state of Nevada issue.”

Souder and GOP committee aides said they wanted to protect Walters and his office from allegations that they were engaged in partisan, political activity. But the legislation they drafted sparked an outcry of criticism that it would in fact authorize taxpayer money to be used in ads against candidates and ballot initiatives that support marijuana law reform.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said Souder’s original language “opened the door legally to partisan, political use. Any allowance for the use of the media campaign for political purposes would be unacceptable.”

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) offered an amendment to require that the drug czar’s office submit to Congress advance copies of any ads it plans. She withdrew the amendment after committee leaders said they would try to incorporate some ad review policy internally.

Steve Fox, legislative director of the Marijuana Policy Project, applauded the committee’s restrictions on the anti-drug advertising budget but said that similar restrictions should have been adopted for the drug czar.

“Unfortunately, the committee did not extend the common sense restriction on using taxpayer funds for political purposes to the activities of the drug czar,” Fox said. “This leaves him free to continue traveling around the country, lying to voters and state legislators about medical marijuana and other issues. We will urge the full House to prohibit the drug czar from using taxpayer dollars to interfere in state legislative matters.”

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