March 17, 2004 - The Hill (US DC)

Anti-Pot Campaign Not Propaganda, Says GAO

Note: Item snipped from longer column

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With the General Accounting Office (GAO) declaring that White House ads touting the benefits of the new Medicare law stray into a gray area of political advocacy, another, less noticed GAO opinion states that an election-year, anti-medical-marijuana initiative by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) was perfectly legal.

In the run-up to the November 2002 elections, with medical marijuana initiatives on the ballot in several states, ONDCP Deputy Director Scott Burns wrote to local prosecutors stressing their role in "fighting the normalization of marijuana."

His letter made a number of statements that medical marijuana advocates considered inaccurate, including that "marijuana and violence are linked" and "no credible research suggests" that marijuana has medical uses.

In April of last year, libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) asked the GAO to investigate whether the Burns letter violated the ban on using taxpayer funds for "publicity and propaganda" as well as the long-standing GAO position that "the government should not disseminate misleading information."

In responding to Paul nearly a year later, just last week, the GAO declared, in essence, that the veracity of ONDCP's statements is irrelevant.

"Even though the statements may have been controversial, wrote GAO General Counsel Anthony Gamboa, "they were made within the context of ONDCP's statuatory responsibilities, which include taking such actions as necessary to oppose efforts to legalize certain substances."

He further pointed out that the executive branch is only prohibited from "communications aimed at influencing legislation pending before the Congress," not state legislative bodies.

"It is unfortunate, although not surprising, that the GAO counsel believes the ONDCP acts within its bounds when it engages in political action at taxpayer expense," said Paul.

"Imagine the outcry if IRS staff traveled the country arguing against tax cuts at the state level! Drug laws, like virtually all criminal laws, are wholly the province of states. Neither Congress nor any administration had the authority to create and fund a federal drug-war cheerleading agency."

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