The Trump administration was evasive in August when BuzzFeed News reported on a secretive marijuana committee operated by the White House — detailing memos that indicated the committee’s agenda to propagate negative attitudes toward pot and portray the drug as a national threat.
But now the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) has acknowledged the committee’s existence in a letter to a Democratic senator seeking information in light of BuzzFeed News’ report.
At the time of that report, several agencies declined to say whether the committee even existed. The White House, when asked, only obliquely referred to a “deliberative process.”
But after Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado questioned top officials about trying to skew data for “backward” political purposes, the ONDCP confirmed to him that the committee is underway, but argued that its work will be unbiased.
In a letter obtained by BuzzFeed News, ONDCP Acting Director James Carroll says the “intent of the marijuana policy coordinating committee” is to work with federal and state partners to assess “rapidly changing drug markets.”
Carroll insisted the committee was neither secretive nor subjective, saying in his Sept. 21 letter that federal officials are taking a “completely objective” approach while seeking “all perspectives, positive or negative.”
However, BuzzFeed News first reported in August on several memos sent to federal agencies concerning the Marijuana Policy Coordination Committee, which solely sought negative information on the drug. The memos instructed 14 agencies and the Drug Enforcement Administration to submit “data demonstrating the most significant negative trends” on the drug and identify issues with state legalization ballot measures, in part to prepare a report for President Donald Trump, who has previously supported states’ rights on marijuana.
The committee complained in one memo that the narrative around marijuana is unfairly biased in favor of the drug and said it wanted to turn the tide on increasing marijuana use.
As BuzzFeed News reported, the committee, a coalition of federal agencies assembled by the White House, met on July 27. The Education Department confirmed it handed over documents to the committee, while the Department of State deferred questions to the White House. Several agencies declined to comment. The White House told BuzzFeed News at the time it was pursuing “internal, deliberative process to craft the President’s policies on a number of important issues facing the American people, and ensure consistency with the President’s agenda.”
Sen. Bennet probed the White House in an Aug. 30 letter, questioning whether the committee was an “intentional effort to mislead the American people.”
“At a time when we should be investing in objective and peer-reviewed scientific research on marijuana and the effects of legalization, the White House is instead using taxpayer money to spread a politically-driven narrative,” said Bennet, who pointed out that the eight states with marijuana legalization laws are ready to work with the administration.
In his response on Sept. 21, Carroll stated, “I assure you that ONDCP seeks all perspectives, positive or negative, when formulating Administration policy. You have my full and firm commitment that ONDCP will be completely objective and dispassionate in collecting all relevant facts and peer-reviewed scientific research on all drugs, including marijuana.”
Bennet wants the White House to keep that promise, he told BuzzFeed News.
“In Colorado, we’ve made a deliberate effort to ensure fact-based data informs our marijuana policies,” the Democratic senator said in a statement. “Government-sponsored propaganda shouldn’t undermine that effort. I intend to hold the ONDCP to its commitment to present objective and scientific information about marijuana to the American public.”
BuzzFeed News followed up with the White House on Monday asking if it had any records that show the committee is seeking both positive and negative information about marijuana.
It’s unclear who was responsible for creating the committee. Carroll tried to distance himself by saying he didn’t attend the committee’s meeting in July, but he didn’t explain who is driving the committee’s work, nor did the White House answer questions about who’s behind it.
Carroll also suggested in his letter to Bennet that the committee is not secretive, although it was never publicly announced.
“ONDCP has a history of working with Federal, state, local, and tribal partners to support data collection efforts on all types of drugs to help assess the impact of rapidly changing drug markets,” he added. “Although I did not participate in this meeting, it is my understanding that this was the intent of the marijuana policy coordinating committee, which is one of hundreds of standing policy coordinating committees (PCCs) that serve as a mechanism for routine interagency processes in every administration. The article you referenced in your letter implies that PCCs are somehow secret, unusual, or outside the appropriate process for policy development in the executive branch.”
Since Carroll said he did not attend the meeting, BuzzFeed News also asked who had assembled the committee and who attended its July 27 meeting, if a presentation had been given to the president, and what the committee’s next steps were. The White House did not immediately respond.
The Marijuana Policy Coordination Committee met with other departments July 27. An earlier version of this post misstated the date of the meeting.