Earlier today, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) announced a 30-day public comment period during which they hope to hear from those directly impacted by the “systemic barriers” the ONDCP’s existing policies create for them – specifically those in underserved communities and/or those who use drugs themselves. They’re also hoping for input and insight regarding how to improve those policies and create programs to advance equity in drug policy legislation.
While there is still a long way to go, this is a positive step in reforming and repairing the unjust harm and blame placed upon underserved communities who have been directly impacted by prohibition and the war on drugs. This 30-day public comment period is not a standalone ONDCP initiative though – rather, it’s action on the direction from Section 8 of White House Executive Order (E.O.) 13985, published by the Federal Register on January 20th, 2021.
The entire E.O., titled “Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government,” contains a plethora of advancement mandates and definitions that require various government agencies to actively work on drug policy reform and equity by engaging with underserved communities, specifically communities featuring people of color, people who identify as LGBTQ+, those with disabilities, and those from rural areas. People of color have long faced (and are still facing) particularly harsh, unfair treatment from the enacted drug policies in the U.S. and this E.O.’s mandates are putting the responsibility of reversing and reforming those negative effects upon the very agencies who create and enforce those policies. While private companies and industry leaders, particularly those in the cannabis industry, are taking action in their own ways, placing this responsibility on an agency that directly perpetuates this harm is a necessary and welcome movement.
Section 8 of E.O. 13985, titled “Engagement with Members of Underserved Communities,” seems to be the main catalyst for the ONDCP’s 30-day public comment period. The section states that “agencies shall consult with members of communities that have been historically underrepresented in the Federal Government and underserved by, or subject to discrimination in, Federal policies and programs.” Equity advocates are sure to take advantage of this opportunity during which they’ve been invited to share their thoughts, feelings, hopes, and aspirations for social equity surrounding drug policy – something they typically have to fight tooth and nail for.
But in addition to activists who make this type of noble work their entire lives, this public comment initiative provides a direct tunnel of communication between underserved communities and an agency that has created disparities for them for roughly four decades. The ONDCP was formed in the late 1980s with the help of, you may have guessed it, our current president, then-Senator of Delaware, Joseph Biden. However, despite his past legislative actions, it appears that Biden may be up for a change of pace in the U.S’s drug policies.
While some have long clamored for the dismantlement or at least defunding of the ONDCP, this attempt to reform drug policies by interacting with those who are directly affected by them seems to be well received by activists and underserved communities as a positive step in the right direction. If nothing else, they’ll definitely be taking advantage of having the ONDCP’s ear for a month.
The ONDCP’s announcement notes that they have seven priorities intertwined with this initiative “to reduce overdoses and promote recovery,” which include “advancing racial equity in our approach to drug policy, expanding access to quality treatment, reducing the supply of illicit substances, and enhancing evidence-based harm reduction services that engage and build trust with people who use drugs, among others.” The language is complex but the message and efforts are clear: the ONDCP is taking direct action (albeit on Executive Order) to address the extreme disparities in equity caused by drug policies. Their aim to work directly with those affected by their policies, which they’ve admitted may be particularly harmful to certain communities, is something to be celebrated, whether or not it was mandated by the White House.