Rahul Gupta used to chair the West Virginia Public Health Commission — a state that’s been ground zero for the nation’s raging opioid epidemic. He was then tapped by the now president to be the lead on drug policy for the transition from the campaign trail to the White House. President Joe Biden now wants the former health commission from Appalachia to be his federal drug czar.
Gupta’s been chosen to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). If the Senate confirms him, Gupta — who is also senior vice president and chief medical and health officer for the non-profit March of Dimes — would become the first medical doctor to oversee the nation’s continuing battle against drug abuse.
“President Biden’s nomination of Dr. Rahul Gupta to be the first physician ever to lead the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy is another historic step in the administration’s efforts to turn the tide of our nation’s addiction and overdose epidemic,” the White House told the Washington Post.
“Gupta has an intimate understanding of the drug crisis in West Virginia and its ripple effect on nearly every aspect of life in the Mountain State.”Charleston Gazette-Mail editorial
The ONDCP oversees most federal drug-related policy and offers input into the budgets of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
It’s an important position. Anti-marijuana activists Patrick Kennedy, a former Democratic congressman from Rhode Island, and Kelly Clark, the former president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, both publicly sought the position.
The head of the ONDCP is required by statute to oppose efforts to make currently controlled substances, like marijuana or psilocybin, legal. That puts Gupta in a bit of a bind, because in the recent past he’s publicly touted the benefits of medical marijuana — even working to institute a state-legal medicinal cannabis program in West Virginia.
If confirmed, Gupta’s expected to obey the law forbidding the drug czar from advocating for the legalization, decriminalization or normalization of marijuana.
He’ll also be charged with being the top cheerleader for the administration’s confusing policy on marijuana, which at the moment seems to be that cannabis should be decriminalized, though not legalized, at the federal level.
This won’t be the first administration official to be personally muzzled by Biden’s opposition to marijuana normalization. Gupta has been tapped to join be joining the ranks of Vice President Kamala Harris, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Xavier Beccerra, Associate Attorney General.Vanita Gupta, etc.
Even without being allowed to have his full voice, at least publicly, in the Biden administration, many who have followed his work in Appalachia say he’s the right man for the drug czar job.
“Gupta has an intimate understanding of the drug crisis in West Virginia and its ripple effect on nearly every aspect of life in the Mountain State,” the Charleston Gazette-Mail wrote in an editorial supporting his nomination.
For years now West Virginia has been the epicenter of the nation’s opioid crisis, so he knows the crisis isn’t just about easy access to pills — it’s about the lack of opportunity coupled with poor health services, to name just two factors Gupta has witnessed with his own eyes.
“He knows how broad the problem is and how it touches everything from outbreaks of diseases related to shared needles in intravenous drug use to the soaring number of kids in foster care because parents are either dead from an overdose or incarcerated to the devastating effect on the state’s economy,” the Charleston Gazette-Mail continued.
Critics argue Gupta could have done more to prevent the city of Charleston from closing its syringe program in 2018, though his supporters counter that he had to choose his battles carefully back then.
Still, Gupta has defenders — even some that aren’t a natural fit with his past as an advocate for the legalization of medicinal marijuana.
Kevin Sabet co-founded Smart Approaches to Marijuana, or SAM — arguably the leading anti-marijuana lobbying organization in the nation. Before becoming the face of the opposition to marijuana, he served in the White House drug office. He’s praising Gupta’s past efforts.
“Rahul has a strong public health background, but he also knows how to work with law enforcement and other stakeholders,” Sabet told Politico. “I hope drug policy gets back on the front burner with this selection.”
This piece was originally published by Marijuana Moment and has been edited or modified by The News Station.