Joe Biden has nominated a White House drug czar with previous experience implementing and expanding a state medical cannabis program.
Rahul Gupta, who served as the Chair of the West Virginia Medical Cannabis Advisory Board and is a team member that helped prepare Biden for the presidency, will serve as the new head of the office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).
Legislation requires the director of the ONDCP, also known as the “drug czar,” to explicitly oppose efforts to legalize controlled substances.
Filling that role with someone who has frequently stated that marijuana has medical value and worked to implement a state-legal program that authorizes illegal activities under federal law is somewhat unusual for White House drug czars.
Before taking office, the Biden administration touted Gupta’s medical doctor credentials, emphasizing that he could better lead the nation’s drug policy efforts in the face of an overdose crisis.
The White House told the Washington Post that President Biden’s nomination of Dr. Rahul Gupta as the first physician to lead White House’s National Drug Control Policy is “another historic step” the administration is taking to turn the tide of the nation’s addiction and overdose epidemic.
Dr. Gupta has unique experience in public health as a medical doctor and physician-epidemiologist who has deployed evidence-based practices to tackle the West Virginia overdose epidemic. “We hope he (Gupta) will be confirmed by the Senate soon,” the White House added.
In March 2021, Filter Magazine, a well-known drug policy publication, announced that Gupta was the leading candidate for the ONDCP nomination.
While some may see him as being an advocate for medical cannabis, harm reduction advocates have criticized Gupta for his time as Commissioner of the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Bureau for Public Health. They pointed out that during his tenure, he oversaw the decertification of a program that was intended to help people with substance use disorders mitigate the spread of infections like HIV and to offer them support and resources.
Marijuana legalization opponents had harbored hopes that the president would nominate someone who shares their views, such as former Representative Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), who had lobbied on behalf of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) as a founding member.
Despite Gupta’s state record on cannabis, they believe he will keep the status quo.
“Rahul has a strong public health background, but he also knows how to work with law enforcement and other stakeholders,” said SAM President Kevin Sabet in response to news of the nomination. “He has a record of convening different constituencies, which will serve him well in this role. It’s a strong selection.”
In response, a spokesperson for the organization stated that they expect Gupta to publicly share Biden’s opposition to legalization.
Although Gupta’s views on adult-use legalization are currently unclear, he has previously supported ensuring that patients have access to medical cannabis while serving in government.
Rusty Williams, who had previously served on the West Virginia medical marijuana board alongside Gupta, discussed the history of marijuana prohibition in the earlier interview with Marijuana Moment. Unfortunately, as he made clear when he was chair, government officials were going to use prohibition as a tool to target minorities.
The West Virginia Board of Medical Cannabis released a report in 2018 with several recommendations for the state’s medical-marijuana program. Gupta led the advice to allow patients to obtain marijuana in the form of flowers for administration by vaporization or nebulization—which was not permitted by the program when lawmakers voted on it.
Regarding smoking cannabis, Gupta said that patients can “combust themselves if they want,” but did not advocate or recommend it.
Additionally, the report suggested getting rid of the limitation prohibiting a grower or processor from operating as a dispensary to allow for vertical integration among growers, processors, and dispensaries. It also called for removing limitations on the number of permits the Bureau of Public Health distributes to growers, processors, and dispensaries.
When the West Virginia legislature voted to legalize medical marijuana in 2017, Gupta said that, like most people, he was surprised.
“It’s an understatement,” said Gupta. “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.”
According to an official, The formation of the state medical cannabis advisory board facilitated “a transparent and accountable process critical to ensuring a comprehensive system that will help people suffering from debilitating diseases like cancer.”
Regarding the medical marijuana legalization bill, he said that he is “fully committed” to making this bill a success. However, while this bill was rushed to completion, Gupta noted that no bill is without errors. Still, he said that the program’s shortcomings were undoubtedly addressed, and it “doesn’t mean the program won’t be successful” or off-track.
Gupta added that their mission is to save lives and they hope the program will be successful. He also expressed that many people are in chronic pain, yet they “want to take on that challenge.”
After receiving input from various stakeholders, the board learned that many people had contacted them with a wide range of interests in implementing the cannabis program. They’d also gotten phone calls from people who are suffering and who want some form of relief. In addition, they inquired as to when they will be able to obtain their patient I.D. card and then go to their medical professionals to acquire certification.
According to Gupta, the human side of the issue can’t be overlooked. He said that science explains only some of it, not all of it. He also said that, if done right, “you can actually get a true win-win on this.”
But Gupta doesn’t necessarily like the idea of everyone using marijuana, so he partnered with then-Surgeon General Jerome Adams in an educational campaign meant to inform pregnant and adolescent women about the dangers of using cannabis.
Speaking in support of today’s news, U.S. Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders said, “I applaud the recent release of the U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the dangers of marijuana use during pregnancy for both mom and baby. Pregnancy and breastfeeding experts agree that there is no safe amount of marijuana. But, sadly, it appears this message is not being heard by all expecting women and those in the maternity care field. Currently, pregnant women are twice as likely to use marijuana as they were in 2002.
Additional posts about Colorado’s marijuana regulations and a study showing that use is on the rise among teenagers have also been featured on Gupta’s social media accounts.
Many advocates keep a close eye on Biden’s appointments because many believe that he will continue to block cannabis reform due to his opposition to legalization.
According to Garland, the Justice Department should not use its resources to prosecute people abiding by state marijuana laws. He used the same argument in May.