Top Obama drug policy official is said to be stepping down

My colleague Don Sapatkin has learned that the Obama Administation's number two drug policy official - and former University of Pennsylvania professor - A. Thomas McLellan plans to leave his post in July. McClellan is one of the nation's leading experts on drug addiction.

Here is my colleague's report:

A. Thomas McLellan, the former Penn professor whose appointment last year as the top federal official on addiction treatment was widely seen as signaling a dramatic shift in drug policy, is planning to resign.

“There’s no deep dark secret here - I’m just ill-suited to government work,” McLellan said in an interview with the newsletter Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Weekly.

McLellan, the deputy director of  the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, is known as a straight-talking, get-it-done kind of scientist.

“I guess I could be called a ready, fire, aim kind of guy," McLellan, 62, said in an interview with the Inquirer earlier this year. "Government is ready, aim . . . aim . . . aim . . . you get the drift?”

But friends, colleagues – and McLellan himself – had had hoped that his passion for the field would hold him in Washington.

McLellan, a leading scientist on drug addiction who cofounded the Treatment Research Institute in Philadelphia, pioneered the view that addiction is a chronic disease like diabetes that needs to be managed over the long term. His views dovetail with those of his boss, drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, the former police chief of Seattle, who has repeatedly stated his belief that treatment is at least as important as law enforcement in attacking the nation’s issues with illegal drugs – a view that has been politically unpopular in the past.

Alison Knopf,  the editor of the weekly newsletter, said that McLellan told her in the interview Thursday that he expected that treatment would continue to be emphasized by the Obama administration despite his departure.

The release of the National Drug Control Strategy, a detailed blueprint for how the federal government deals with issues of illegal drugs and underage drinking that is written by McLellan and Kerlikowske, has been expected for more than two months but repeatedly delayed. Both men have talked in bits and pieces about its emphasis on treatment, and it was not known whether the delay had anything to do with McLellan’s decision.

Speaking from his hotel room in San Francisco, where he was scheduled to talk at the American Society of Addiction Medicine conference, McLellan said that he planned to leave office in July – in accepting the job, he said, he had committed to Vice President Joe Biden to stay for at least a year -- and then take some time off. “There would be six months in which he would do nothing,” Knopf said he told her.

“He did sound happy and relaxed. Maybe that’s because he wasn’t sitting with a minder,” she said, referring to McLellan’s well-known discomfort with bureaucracy.