New drug bill courts new controversy

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The White House anti-drug program is embroiled in controversy yet again. A bill before the House of Representatives includes language that indicates some of the program's media outlay could go towards fighting legalization of drugs.

An analysis of the legislation by aides to the bill's sponsor, Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., said it "clarifies that the [drug office] director is not prohibited from carrying out his statutory duty to oppose legalization of illicit drugs under the media campaign."

Legalization proponents howled. "In plain English, the subcommittee has created a political slush fund," said Steve Fox, director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project. "If this provision stands, it means that the drug czar can use our tax dollars to fund partisan political campaigns anytime he can justify it as `opposing drug legalization."'

The House legislation also hands a partial victory to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, which has battled publicly with the Office of National Drug Control Policy over the anti-drug program.

The legislation, approved by a panel of the House Government Reform Committee last week, would extend the media campaign another five years and require more of the money go to media spending. That vindicates the Partnership, which has complained that too much spending of the campaign goes to non-media activities.

The legislation would also limit how often the drug czar could go outside the Partnership for creative and limits spending on outside creative to $1 million to $2 million a year.

The bill does not require re-bidding the current media buying and research contract held by WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather, although a later Senate version of the bill could require the contract to be re-bid. Rep. Souder said language requiring greater contractor accountability will be added when the bill is considered by the full Government Reform Committee.

Ogilvy history

The contract has been re-bid once already. Ogilvy paid $1.8 million to settle charges that it billed the drug office wrongly for its initial work on the account, leading to the re-bid and Ogilvy retaining the contract. The agency has contended the problems stemmed from its initial lack of a government accounting system and that they have been fixed. Ogilvy officials declined immediate comment.

Since the program began in 1999, ONDCP has relied on the Partnership to produce much of the advertising. But relations between the two have been strained. The Partnership has argued that too much of the funding went to non-media efforts; that the drug office ads had too many different themes; and that the process for approving creative was too cumbersome. The drug office cut the number of themes, but complained that Partnership agencies that volunteer their services can be slow to provide creative that meets requirements.

It has also argued that an integrated effort, which includes Web sites and grassroots programs, is vital to the program's success.

The problems peaked over a drugs-and-terror campaign that ONDCP officials favored but the Partnership opposed. The drug office asked Ogilvy to produce the ad outside the Partnership. That campaign has now ended.

Greater control

Another bill introduced by Reps. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Elijah Cummings, D-Md., would give the Partnership even greater control and had drawn praise from the Partnership.

"The legislation reflects several tenets of the original campaign concept," said Steve Dnistrian, a spokesman for the Partnership. "It is a bill that is needed right now to instill confidence in the appropriators to go forward fully with the program."

Thomas A. Riley, director of public affairs for the drug office, said drug czar John Walters has expressed concern that the Portman-Cummings bill could make running an effective campaign more difficult. "He feels he needs to have flexibility to manage the campaign properly. Some of this language is not helpful."

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