President Joe Biden’s pick for the White House drug czar is not only an advocate for marijuana’s therapeutic value, but was also a crucial figure in the roll-out of West Virginia’s medical cannabis program.
Rahul Gupta, the former chair of the West Virginia Medical Cannabis Advisory Board, is Biden’s preferred choice to lead the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), a role informally referred to as the ‘drug czar.’
If the Senate accepts Biden’s nomination of Gupta as the director of the ONDCP, it would mark the first time the position has been filled by a person openly in favor of medical marijuana and who implemented a medical marijuana program in contravention of federal law. After all, by law, the ONDCP director is obliged to oppose attempts to legalize federally controlled substances, such as cannabis.
In a statement to the press, the Biden administration focused on Rahul Gupta’s credentials as a medical doctor and health official in the face of a nationwide opioid epidemic as the reasons for his nomination as the White House drug czar.
“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 statement reads. “Dr. Gupta brings firsthand experience as a medical doctor and public health official using evidence-based strategies to address the overdose epidemic in West Virginia. We hope he will be confirmed by the Senate soon.”
As chair of the West Virginia Medical Cannabis Advisory Board he pushed for the removal of various restrictions in the state’s medical marijuana program. Gupta recommended allowing patient’s access to cannabis flower, rather than just tinctures or topical creams, which was initially rejected by West Virginian lawmakers but has since been adopted. He was also against “limitations on the number of permits the Bureau for Public Health may issue for growers, processors, and dispensaries,” and 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.”
Gupta’s position on broader marijuana legalization, however, is unclear. Close associates contend that, in private, Gupta agrees that cannabis was criminalized to serve as a weapon for the federal government against communities of color and the antiwar left. But he has never come out publicly in favor of repealing marijuana prohibition. Rather, he has participated in public awareness campaigns on the dangers of using marijuana during adolescence and while pregnant.
Gupta’s silence on the issue, while passionately endorsing medical marijuana, is perhaps part of the reason why Biden views him as an ideal candidate for the White House drug czar. Biden’s selections for various roles in his administration are under intense scrutiny from marijuana reform advocates owing to his continued opposition to marijuana legalization – against the majority opinion of his party and the US population – in favor of incremental reforms, such as legalizing medical marijuana and decriminalizing adult-use and possession.
Another of Biden’s picks, Attorney General Merrick Garland, has been similarly quiet throughout his career on the issue of legalizing cannabis, but during his oral and written testimony to the Senate as part of his nomination process, he confirmed he would not use the Justice Department’s resources to target individuals and businesses who comply with state cannabis laws.