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August 25, 2009 -- The Daily Beast

Drug War: The Bushie Obama Can't Fire

Obama vowed to reverse Bush's hard-line drug policies, but Dubya still has a man raising havoc in the White House drug office. Problem is, Obama can't fire him.

By Charles Homans, Washington Monthly

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive


The Bush years were not the finest hour for the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy. Drug czar John Walters, who ran the place beginning in late 2001, waged a militaristic drug war, pouring money into dubiously effective efforts to fight trafficking abroad while letting treatment programs stagnate at home, and obsessing over marijuana at the expense of more dangerous drugs.

It's an approach that Barack Obama's drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, is now trying to steer away from. He has vowed to end the use of the phrase "war on drugs," and the hard-liners who filled out Walters' office are now gone. All of them, that is, except one guy: David Murray, the drug czar's chief scientist, and Walters' most enthusiastic disciple.

David Murray is a lone human memento of the Bush administration's drug war, surrounded by people who are trying to undo the work on which he has spent the past eight years.

"He was brought in as a political hatchet man," says Ross Deck, a former ONDCP analyst and a 16-year-veteran of the office who quit during the Walters years. Before joining in the ONDCP, Murray had no prior experience in addiction science, or law enforcement, or anything else particularly related to drug policy.

He is on the record questioning many of the drug policies espoused by Kerlikowske. Congress has spent three years trying to get him fired.

Why, then, does Murray somehow still have a job in the Obama administration? The reason can be found in the fine print of the federal bureaucracy. Midway through his tenure, Walters moved Murray -- at the time his special assistant -- from a politically appointed job to the chief scientist's post, a theoretically apolitical position that makes him much harder to fire. By law, Kerlikowske can't touch a hair on his head for the first 120 days of his own stint as drug czar. Which means that until the middle of September, Murray is living in a peculiar limbo: a lone human memento of the Bush administration's botched prosecution of the drug war, surrounded by people who are trying to undo the work on which he has spent the past eight years.

ONDCP veterans speak fondly of Murray's predecessor, a defense research veteran named Al Brandenstein, who was the drug czar office's only previous chief scientist from 1991 until Walters removed him in 2004. Brandenstein worked to put advanced drug-detection technologies in the hands of law-enforcement agencies, but he was also interested in advancing the understanding of the demand side of the drug-use equation. In the 1990s, he got government funding for brain-scanning equipment that medical researchers would use to better understand the biochemistry of addiction. Critics in the drug-policy community argue that Brandenstein's work produced little of value, and that his post existed mostly to provide a pretext for government spending on gadgetry -- but for better or worse, that was what Congress had asked for when it created the chief scientist job.

Murray, on the other hand, was not. A former cultural anthropologist who had left academia for the conservative think-tank circuit, he had made a name for himself in Washington a decade earlier with an article in Policy Review about the danger out-of-wedlock births posed to the fabric of American society. (It began, memorably, "America is becoming a nation of bastards.") As Walters' special assistant, he had made headlines in Canada in 2003 by suggesting that the U.S.'s northern neighbor's experiments with marijuana decriminalization could cause diplomatic problems along the border.

Shelving most of Brandenstein's work, Murray pursued the occasional science project -- he was enthusiastic about testing the Beltway's sewage for traces of cocaine -- but mostly used his office as a political soapbox, lambasting opponents and burying unflattering data that suggested his boss wasn't exactly winning the drug war. (The Statistical Assessment Service, a research organization that Murray himself launched in 1994, has in recent years devoted much ink to debunking its own founder's claims on drug-policy issues like needle exchange.)

In congressional testimony, Murray branded medical-marijuana advocates "modern-day snake-oil proponents"; in a 2007 appearance on a panel at the libertarian Cato Institute, he derided the think tank's pro-legalization stance to be "an illusion" that "grows out of late-night dormitory engagements in college that one hopes one outgrows." He also alienated more middle-of-the-road drug-policy experts both inside and outside the bureaucracy; one outside expert recalls attending a drug-research group meeting with Murray and hearing him offhandedly refer to the pot-friendly Netherlands as a "narco-state."

"David acted as though he had said nothing the least bit unusual in saying that," the expert says. "It's indicative of how off the map he is -- he simply doesn't understand how strange his own views are about these things."

Congress felt similarly. In the fall of 2005, as the panic over methamphetamine use in rural America was reaching its apex, Walters sent Murray to brief the members the House of Representatives' Meth Caucus -- a group formed by mostly rural and Western congressmen in 2001 -- on what the administration planned to do about the burgeoning problem. The assembled lawmakers were so spectacularly unimpressed that one of them, Indiana Republican Mark Souder, marched out of the meeting and promptly demanded that Murray step down from his post, calling his briefing "pathetic" and an "embarrassment." Murray's performance was so bad, Souder declared, that "if Director Walters and anyone else in that office agrees with what was said today, they should resign."

This was grandstanding, of course. But Congress made more substantial efforts to oust Murray after the Democrats came to power in 2006. Over the next three years, the Senate Appropriations Committee -- which controls the federal government's purse strings -- used its annual report to criticize the chief scientist directly, a highly unusual gesture. "The Committee," one of the reports reads, "is highly disappointed in the director of this program" -- Murray -- "and is troubled by his ideas for research and development that appear to have little or no value." When Walters insisted on keeping him in the post in the face of such criticism, the Appropriations Committee responded by slashing funding for it. Murray's office, which received nearly $47 million in 2003, got just $1 million this year.

The committee has made it clear that ONDCP's science shop won't see another dime until Murray is gone, at least from his current job. What happens after that is an open question. (Repeated calls to the ONDCP's press office for an interview with Murray or a comment on his future prospects went unreturned.) While most drug-policy watchers assume Kerlikowske will kick him out of the chief scientist post as soon as he can, actually firing him is trickier. There are ways to encourage burrowed-in ideologues to quit, however -- ONDCP veterans recall that George Bush Sr.'s drug czar, Bob Martinez, used to do it by assigning them to an office with no windows, phones, or computers.

"He'll be there until somebody runs him off," Ross Deck, the former ONDCP analyst, says of Murray. "What can they do with him? They can give him a job counting paperclips."

Charles Homans is an editor of the Washington Monthly.

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