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Leading Candidate For Biden’s Drug Czar Embraced Marijuana’s Health And Economic Benefits

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President Joe Biden’s leading candidate to be White House drug czar has played a critical role in overseeing the implementation and expansion of a state medical marijuana program and has publicly recognized both the therapeutic and economic potential of cannabis reform.

Rahul Gupta, the former chair of the West Virginia Medical Cannabis Advisory Board who also served as the lead on drug policy in Biden’s presidential transition team, is reportedly the top pick to head the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), according to Filter—though no formal announcement has yet been made.

The ONDCP director, commonly known as “drug czar,” is explicitly required under statute to oppose efforts to legalize currently controlled substances.

As such, it would be a significant departure from the norm to have someone fill that role who has repeatedly touted the medical value of marijuana—saying, for example, that it can “help citizens suffering from debilitating diseases like cancer”—and who has worked to institute a state-legal cannabis program that authorizes people to carry out activities that are in contravention of federal law.

That said, harm reduction advocates have been quick to criticize Gupta’s record, pointing out that, during his time as commissioner for the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) Bureau for Public Health, he oversaw the decertification of a syringe access program that was designed to mitigate the spread of diseases like HIV and offer resources to people with substance misuse disorders.

Prohibitionists, for their part, have also been closely following ONDCP appointment developments. They’ve 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, who has been personally lobbying for the nomination. Whether Gupta gets the pick, or if the slot goes to another leading contender such as Acting ONDCP Director Regina LaBelle, legalization advocates would be relieved if Kennedy is not chosen.

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.

Marijuana Moment reached out to the White House and March of Dimes for comment about the potential ONDCP job for Gupta, but representatives did not immediately respond.

Rusty Williams, who served as a patient advocate on the West Virginia medical marijuana board alongside Gupta, told Marijuana Moment 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.

“Having served with him on on the advisory board, and especially given the climate surrounding the issue here in West Virginia—it’s a very hostile place to try to push cannabis reform, it has been for years—I’m very, very encouraged” by Gupta’s appointment, Williams said.

“He was willing to make things happen a year early,” he said, referring to the issuance of the board’s report on medical cannabis policy. “I was encouraged with the conversation that he and I had about the roots of prohibition.”

In 2018, the West Virginia medical marijuana board released a report that included series of recommendations on the state’s cannabis program. Led by Gupta, the body advised that patients should have access to marijuana in flower form for “administration by vaporization or nebulization”—something that was not initially allowed in the program as approved by lawmakers.

When it comes to smoking that raw plant material, Gupta noted, that patients “can combust themselves if they want, but that’s not what we’re advocating or recommending.”

The report also called for the removal of “limitations on the number of permits the Bureau for Public Health may issue for growers, processors, and dispensaries,” as well as the removal of “the limitation that a grower or processor may not also be a dispensary to permit the vertical integration of growers, processors and dispensaries.”

“To be honest with you, when he took the position with the March of Dimes, I was sad to see him go,” Williams said. “I think that, had he remained in the position here with DHHR, our medical cannabis program would be much further along than it is right now. Just for my personal opinion, I think he will be an ally to medical cannabis patients.”

When medical marijuana legalization was approved by the West Virginia legislature in 2017, Gupta said that, like most people, he was “surprised.”

“It’s an understatement,” he said at the time. “However, what we have in front of us today is a law as it stands in an attempt to compassionately address a number of disorders with chronic pain at the heart of it.”

When members of the state medical cannabis advisory board were appointed, the official said the panel will help facilitate “a transparent and accountable process critical to ensuring a comprehensive system that will help citizens suffering from debilitating diseases like cancer.”

“I am fully committed to making this particular piece of legislation successful,” he said of the medical marijuana legalization bill. “This bill was put together very quickly and, obviously, no bill is perfect. We certainly discussed the shortcomings, but that doesn’t mean the program won’t be successful and be on track.”

“We want to do it because lives are at stake. They are depending on the program to be successful,” he added. “Many people are in chronic pain. We want to take on that challenge.”

Gupta said that the board had received feedback from a range of stakeholders interested in the implementation of the cannabis program, but they’d also “received calls from people who are suffering who want to have some sort of relief. They are asking when they can get their patient ID card and go to their doctors to get certification.”

“The human side of it—you can’t ignore that piece,” he also said. “Science explains some of it, but not all of it.” He went on to say that there is a potential economic benefit to legalize for medical use, noting that “rarely are there policies enacted that are win-win,” and if done right, “you can actually get a true win-win on this.”

But Gupta isn’t necessarily a fan of marijuana use for everyone. In 2019, he teamed up with then-Surgeon General Jerome Adams on a public education campaign meant to warn against the use of cannabis during pregnancy and adolescence.

“March of Dimes applauds today’s release of the US Surgeon General’s Advisory on the dangers of marijuana use during pregnancy for both mom and baby,” he said. “The evidence clearly shows that no amount of marijuana has been proven safe to use during pregnancy or while breastfeeding. Unfortunately, this message is not resonating with all expecting women and maternity care providers, and marijuana use among pregnant women has doubled between 2002 and 2017.”

Gupta has also periodically posted on social media about marijuana policy developments, such as the enactment of regulations for Colorado’s marijuana program and a 2010 report that more teens were smoking cannabis than tobacco.

Despite Biden playing a leading role in passing legislation to create the drug czar role during his time in the Senate, The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that the ONDCP director role will not be reinstated to a cabinet-level position in his administration.

Part of the reason that advocates are monitoring each of Biden’s nominations is because skepticism prevails about how his administration will approach cannabis policy considering that the president remains opposed to legalization, and so each development sheds light on what to expect in the coming years.

Attorney General Merrick Garland made clear during his oral and written testimony, for example, that he does not feel the Justice Department should use its resources to go after people acting in compliance with state marijuana laws.

But advocates have had a different reaction to Vanita Gupta—the nominee for assistant attorney general who worked in the Justice Department during the Obama administration in addition to serving in top positions at the ACLU, NAACP and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

While activists were encouraged by her nomination given her history of supporting policies like marijuana legalization and broad decriminalization of other substances, they were sorely disappointed earlier this month when she backpedaled on the broader drug issue—saying she’s “not too proud to admit” the policy shift—when questioned by GOP senators at her confirmation hearing.

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Photo courtesy of Evan Johnson.

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