Faced with accusations that taxpayer money was used illegally in the last election to fight pro-pot referenda in several states, lawmakers are trying to give the White House drug czar cover to run anti-drug ads during elections without being accused of political partisanship.

But groups supporting reforms in the nation’s marijuana laws say the language that was slipped into the reauthorization of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (search) budget would go far beyond allowing the White House to run anti-drug ads. It would get the office directly involved in campaigning against referenda and candidates who support medicinal marijuana or other decriminalization efforts.

“Basically, the genie is out of the bottle — people now know that [ONDCP Director John Walters' (search)] campaign is as much about politics as it is about prevention,” said Steve Fox, the head of the Marijuana Policy Project (search), which seized upon the language change proposed in the House Government Reform Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources Subcommittee last month.

Current law prohibits funds from the $195 million youth anti-drug media program to be used for partisan purposes. Drug policy subcommittee Chairman Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., has authored a bill that would allow the ONDCP to use the money to engage in political campaigns as long as the drug czar sticks to his mission to thwart “any attempt to legalize the use of a substance” prohibited by federal law.

Several Democrats oppose the language because they say it will give the ONDCP free reign to use the youth-targeted advertising money to pay for politically motivated campaigning.

They say they don’t want to stand in the way of the drug czar doing his job but fear that the White House could attack candidates and constituents who engage in legitimate campaigns for reforming laws in their states, making his role more political than educational.

“The language [in the bill] would allow the drug czar to run ads against candidates and initiatives,” said Phil Schiliro, a spokesman for Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., ranking member on the House Government Reform Committee. “To use public money for partisan purposes strikes [Waxman] as inappropriate.”

Waxman and others are working on revising the language to specify that any campaign initiated by the government could not “expressly” attack any candidate or state initiative.

According to David Marin, spokesman for the House Government Reform Committee, the drug czar already has the right to use the money to oppose drug legalization efforts. Changes in the language were introduced to give the director freedom to do his job of educating the public without the “fear of lawsuits.”

“We do not agree that the youth media campaign cannot be used to tell families of the dangers of drug use, even in states where marijuana initiatives or issues have surfaced,” he said.

“Rep. Souder wanted to send the message that this reauthorization bill permits the director to carry out his responsibility in terms of clearly stating that the government does not support the legalization of drugs,” Marin said.

But Fox said the ONDCP did quite well in interfering in statewide initiatives in 2002 without the extra help from Congress. Pro-marijuana groups have accused the federal government of sending Walters and then-Drug Enforcement Agency Director Asa Hutchinson to campaign in states where marijuana initiatives were gaining traction among voters.

Fox’s group has placed part of the blame for the failure of several initiatives in November on these efforts, including a ballot contest in Nevada that if it had passed, would have made possession of less than three ounces of marijuana a misdemeanor charge. Fifty-seven percent of voters opposed the measure.

Nine states now have medical marijuana laws, including Maryland, whose Gov. Robert Ehrlich is the first Republican state leader to approve such a measure.

And opposition to medical marijuana is hardly universal on Capitol Hill. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, has joined others like Reps. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., who have all publicly supported states' rights to pass medical marijuana laws.

In April, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, filed a complaint with the Government Accounting Office saying a letter sent by ONDCP Deputy Director Scott Burns in November to all local prosecutors, in part urging them to help defeat state medical marijuana campaigns, may have violated the ban on taxpayer funds being spent on “publicity or propaganda.”

“This outreach by Mr. Burns is especially troubling because he appears to be not simply encouraging grassroots activity by the public, but is targeting a group of individuals who rely on the ONDCP for financial support,” Paul said of the prosecutors. “This gives local prosecutors significant reason to please the White House office.”

Marin said that the issue over the bill’s language “is much to do about nothing,” and that he is confident the new language will be worked out to everyone’s satisfaction. “We want [Walters] to go anywhere in the country and say marijuana is bad, and just because there might be an issue on the [state] ballot, he will still be allowed to do that.”