Assessing Botticelli: How’s the Drug Czar Doing?

Michael Botticelli: "The Administration continues to oppose attempts to legalize marijuana and other drugs."

The current rhetoric coming from the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy seems refreshingly progressive, compared with the push for all-out war carried out over the last 40 odd years. The face and voice today of the ONDCP, director Michael Botticelli, is the first openly gay man in active recovery to head the office, lending hope that perhaps the ONDCP’s current drug-policy reform message is genuine. Unfortunately, ONDCP budgetary requests, arrest figures and a somewhat wishy-washy stance on how to deal with marijuana in a rapidly changing landscape don’t lend too much optimism.

The 56-year-old Troy, New York native has a Bachelor’s Degree in psychology from Siena College and a Masters in education from St. Lawrence University, and worked as director of the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health for 20 years before being hired as deputy director of the ONDCP in 2012. He’s also been a member of the Advisory Committee for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Center for Substance Abuse Prevention and the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention.

Botticelli took over the Drug Czar position from his predecessor Gil Kerlikowske in March. A month prior, confronted by Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) during hearings before the House Oversight Subcommittee on Government Operations, Botticelli agreed with Pres. Obama’s statement in The New Yorker in January that marijuana is not as dangerous as alcohol. Despite this public acknowledgement, Botticelli also told the subcommittee that “the Administration continues to oppose attempts to legalize marijuana and other drugs,” adding: “Above all, though, it bears emphasizing that the Department of Justice’s responsibility to enforce the Controlled Substance Act remains unchanged.”

So Botticelli - an alcoholic in recovery for 25 years who tours treatment facilities offering encouragement and a sane, compassionate sounding message - is on the other hand still promoting the position that marijuana should stay illegal, users shall remain criminals and that arresting our way out of national drug abuse problems is a viable course of action. The current ONDCP budget for 2015 yet again asks for even more money. While the ONDCP insists use rates and the availability of all illegal drugs have not significantly changed much in 30 years, they still plan to use those billions of tax dollars on interdiction and other police action with the focus on treatment low on the list of priorities, despite Botticelli’s smiling insistence otherwise to the public.

it's a nice change of pace to not have some retired general (Barry McCaffrey) or police chief (Kerlikowske) making dire statements to the public about waging war on their fellow citizens and instead pushing the idea that compassion does enter into the picture. Now, if we could see action to match the message, or even get to hear a message that doesn’t swing hypocritically all over the place, we may yet begin to notice real change in federal drug policies.

Update: Botticelli was promoted from Acting Director to ONDCP Director on Feb. 11.

Preston Peet

Preston Peet

Editor of "Under the Influence, the Disinformation Guide to Drugs," former editor of, and writer of numerous articles around the globe.