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White House Invites Comment On How Drug Policies Create ‘Systemic Barriers’ For ‘Underserved Areas’

The White House’s drug policy arm is looking for input on whether its existing policies are creating “systemic barriers to opportunities for underserved communities” and whether future programs could be developed to better promote equity. It is also seeking advice on how to better involve people who use drugs in the creation of policies that affect them.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) announced the 30-day public comment period in a notice published in the Federal Register on Wednesday. And it’s an opportunity that reform advocates will likely take advantage of, as the so-called drug czar’s office has historically resisted policy changes like marijuana legalization that could help to repair the harms of prohibition, which has been enforced on a racially disproportionate basis.

The filing doesn’t represent ONDCP independently soliciting feedback on the equity implications of the various agencies and grant programs it oversees, however. Rather, it was published in accordance with a government-wide executive order that President Joe Biden signed in January.

“The E.O. requires agencies to assess whether, and to what extent, its programs and policies perpetuate systemic barriers to opportunities and benefits for people of color and other underserved groups,” ONDCP said. “Such assessments will better equip agencies to develop policies and programs that deliver resources and benefits equitably to all.”

ONDCP says it is seeking “more perspectives from a wide array of backgrounds, including those most impacted by United States’ drug policies” to inform its future endeavors.

The office currently administers efforts such as the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas Program that enable the war on drugs, under which people of color are arrested, prosecuted and sentenced to prison at disproportionate rates.

In the new notice, the office offered a series of prompts for submissions on how it can better carry out its duties “with the goal of embedding equity throughout agency practices and policies.”

“How might research examine equity in the context of law enforcement actions against drug trafficking or transnational criminal organizations?” one prompt asks. “Are there existing applicable research frameworks that might be applied to ONDCP’s Grant Administration Programs or other multi-jurisdictional task forces?”

Another asks stakeholders for “recommendations for short-term and long-term goals that ONDCP should take into account to measure progress towards equity in drug policy.”

There’s already a breadth of research that’s been done by drug policy and civil rights groups like the ACLU and Drug Policy Alliance on equity issues that have stemmed from federal drug enforcement efforts. Those research initiatives may well be shared with ONDCP during this comment period, but the question remains why certain findings haven’t already been incorporated without an administrative mandate.

Another interesting prompt from the agency concerns how to “involve people who use drugs, especially those not typically included in household surveys, in the development of national drug control policy.”

That could be an informative topic, as reform advocates often criticize government bodies for aiming to deal with issues like addiction without hearing directly from the people most impacted by the health condition, for example.

ONDCP and advocates have had a strained reputation since the agency’s inception in the 1980s, and that hasn’t changed under the Biden administration. Some have questioned whether the organization, which Biden helped to create during his time as a senator, is necessary in the first place.

But mandated or not, some reflection on how it could remove systemic barriers for certain communities is a laudable goal as far as activists are concerned. In the meantime, it seems ONDCP’s budget is protected, as the Biden administration preserved it in its proposal, whereas the previous president proposed slashing that funding by about 90 percent.

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