Good Job! Nice to Have a Drug Czar (Pick) With Work Experience

USA Drug Czar

The headlines were blaring: Biden’s pick for drug czar worked as an advisor for a weed company last year! Of course the press is not allowed an opinion as if they don’t have one – that is reserved for the reader. So the headlines are left hanging like a bubble from a cartoon comic from someone’s mouth who is about to speak or think out loud. 

That is a good thing. Weed is on the block for legalization. We are in an awful opioid crisis. Cannabis is an alternative to many addictive pharmaceuticals. Our neighbors to the north and south are ahead of us on legalization.  The medicinal applications of cannabis are centuries known. Psychedelics are promising new alternatives in mental health. So why not nominate someone who stepped foot in a cannabis business? He has work experience in a field. We have gotten so used to people coming into government without one iota of background on what they are appointed or elected to do and then assumedly supposed to help legislate or enforce policy on something. How refreshing someone advised on one of the biggest health and criminal justice issues facing us today.

Joe Biden’s pick for drug czar is Rahul Gupta. What does it mean to be a drug czar? It sounds so 14th century. The drug czar is the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. What is the ONDCP? What is the job function of the director?

“The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), a component of the Executive Office of the President, was established by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988.”

“The principal purpose of ONDCP is to establish policies, priorities, and objectives for the Nation’s drug control program. The goals of the program are to reduce illicit drug use, manufacturing, and trafficking, drug-related crime and violence, and drug-related health consequences. To achieve these goals, the Director of ONDCP is charged with producing the National Drug Control Strategy. The Strategy directs the Nation’s anti-drug efforts and establishes a program, a budget, and guidelines for cooperation among Federal, State, and local entities.”

“By law, the Director of ONDCP also evaluates, coordinates, and oversees both the international and domestic anti-drug efforts of executive branch agencies and ensures that such efforts sustain and complement State and local anti-drug activities. The Director advises the President regarding changes in the organization, management, budgeting, and personnel of Federal Agencies that could affect the Nation’s anti-drug 

efforts; and regarding Federal agency compliance with their obligations under the Strategy.”

The way we have been going we may have well been living in the 14th century. It is time the government takes a more enlightened look at drug policy and our mental health crisis. 

So who is Rahul Gupta and why is this pick so unique and exciting? Well before I discuss Rahul Gupta perhaps we should backtrack and see who was sitting in the director’s chair from the previous administration. It might help to draw a contrast and underscore the significance of this current nomination and the subtle wisdom inherent  in Joe Biden’s decisions. 

The previous drug czar was Jim Carroll. He was sworn in on January 31, 2019 during the Trump administration. He was the Trump administration’s “fourth, fifth, or sixth drug czar”. Longevity was not a word that could be attributed to the hires of the Trump administration. Jim Carroll worked asgeneral counsel at the Office of Management and Budget back in November 2017. Then he was hired as a deputy to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly”.

“It’s not known if Carroll has any experience with drug policy whatsoever. Prior to his work with the Trump administration, Carroll held several positions with the Ford Motor Company, including a stint as the auto giant’s Washington, DC, counsel.”

Enter Joe Biden’s pick: Rahul Gupta. Who is Rahul Gupta? 

First he is a doctor! The first one, if picked, “to ever lead the office”.

“Gupta, who was most recently the chief medical officer at the March of Dimes, gained national recognition for his data-driven drug treatment work in West Virginia, a state ravaged by the opioid epidemic. His approach to identifying populations at high risk for overdose has served as a national model and made him an early frontrunner to lead the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy.”

He is also an ally of Senator Joe Manchin. Nice! Joe Manchin is the squeaky wheel Democratic Senator from West Virginia who doesn’t always seem to go with the flow as the saying goes. 

“Gupta is also an ally of Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a crucial swing vote in the Democrats’ thin Senate majority.”

“Dr. Rahul Gupta’s nomination to serve as the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy means someone with firsthand knowledge of the opioid crisis, especially in West Virginia, will be coordinating the national fight against the drug epidemic that continues to ravage our nation,” Manchin said in a statement.”

Drug treatment advocates are hoping for a “sharp change from the Trump administration which focused on law enforcement over treatment”. 

“They said priorities outlined by the drug office’s acting director, Regina LaBelle, this spring were a positive sign. LaBelle was also considered for the permanent role.”

And this is where Rahul Gupta’s experience is most germane. 

Gupta “worked as a consultant to Holistic Industries, a multi-state cannabis operator, for nine months in 2020”.

“This adds to the novelty of this particular administration pick, who had already caught the attention of reform advocates given his record overseeing the implementation of West Virginia’s medical marijuana program as state health commissioner and chair of a key advisory board. He’s also publicly recognized both the therapeutic and economic potential of cannabis reform.”

“For a person who would be expressly tasked with maintaining the status quo of prohibition as the nation’s drug czar, this is unconventional—but generally welcomed by marijuana advocates nonetheless.”

What was Gupta’s role at Holistic Industries?

“At Holistic, Gupta’s role was to consult on compliance issues, according to CNN, which was first to report on the disclosure documents. And Holistic WV Farms I, LLC—which is affiliated with Holistic Industries—evidently succeeded in demonstrating its compliance with state regulations in West Virginia, earning 10 medical cannabis retail permits, as well as cultivation and processor permits.”

“Dr. Gupta’s work for Holistic Industries involved consulting on regulatory compliance matters for prescribing medicinal cannabis in West Virginia where medical cannabis had already been legalized,” a White House spokesperson told CNN. “He had overseen the development of such a program in the state as required by state law.”

“Holistic Industries describes itself as “one of the largest and fastest growing private MSOs (Multi-State Operators) in the country.”

“In a disclosure document section on his work for Holistic, Gupta says that, per federal statute, he agrees not to “participate personally and substantially in any particular manner involving specific parties in which I know that client is a party or represents a party, unless I am first authorized to participate” for one year after he last provided services. In this case, he worked for the medical cannabis company from March through December 2020.”

Are prohibitionists happy about this pick? Prohibitionists are never happy. Perhaps if they took a toke they might get a little happier. But cannabis is medicine and even adult use or recreational use is restorative in nature: might I remind the reader the roots of the word recreation:

“late Middle English (also in the sense ‘mental or spiritual consolation’): via Old French from Latin recreatio(n-), from recreare ‘create again, renew.’”

“Prohibitionists had held out hope that the president would select someone whose views more closely align with their own, such as former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), a cofounder of anti-legalization organization Smart Approaches To Marijuana (SAM), who had personally lobbied for the nomination.”

When the Gupta nomination was announced, however, they expressed optimism about the choice and said they feel he will maintain the status quo, regardless of his record on cannabis. It’s unclear whether the new reports about him directly working with, and profiting from, a marijuana business will make them less sure about that.

What are Gupta’s feelings about adult use? 

“Gupta’s views on adult-use legalization are not clear, but he was proactive in promoting patient access to medical cannabis before leaving the state government to join the nonprofit March of Dimes, which is focused on public health issues related to mothers and children.”

“Rusty Williams, who served as a patient advocate on the West Virginia medical marijuana board alongside Gupta, told Marijuana Moment in an earlier interview that he once had a personal conversation with the official about the origins of marijuana prohibition. He said that the then-chair broached the topic of why marijuana was criminalized in the first place, and then agreed that federal officials intended to use prohibition as a tool to oppress communities of color.”

Isn’t it time the government caught up to public opinion? And moved on to more important matters? I don’t know about you but don’t you find this prohibition hamster wheel of a plant that actually can solve some serious problems just a little bit neanderthal at this point? My feeling is Joe Biden knows it, too, and that is why he picked someone to be the drug czar who has job experience within a legitimate cannabis company to show it’s not the evil weed prohibitionists think it is. 

“As more states, including Virginia and New York, continue to legalize marijuana, an overwhelming share of U.S. adults (91%) say either that marijuana should be legal for medical and recreational use (60%) or that it should be legal for medical use only (31%). Fewer than one-in-ten (8%) say marijuana should not be legal for use by adults.”

Let’s hope Congress thinks so, too! 

Author: Sherri Margolin (Dark Matters)

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