Who is the "Drug Czar," and does it matter?


Dr. Rahul Gupta

Ever since President Biden nominated Dr. Rahul Gupta as his administration’s “Drug Czar”— aka Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP)—cannabis-focused news outlets, in particular, have emphasized his past consulting activities with medical cannabis companies. But while his consulting history is interesting, it is likely inconsequential for recreational cannabis policy, due to the responsibilities of the ONDCP. Plus, as Marijuana Business Daily points out, “a number of Biden appointees have had ties to legal cannabis in various ways, Gupta now included,” but the President remains negative on legalization despite messaging pressure and “conversations” from key Senators.


The ONDCP’s legal role and responsibilities in the larger federal drug-policy framework largely restrict Dr. Gupta’s potential influence on recreational cannabis. Under federal law, it must oppose legalization of any currently illegal drugs. While Dr. Gupta has previously “recognized both the therapeutic and economic potential of cannabis reform,” his hands are largely tied. If the ONDCP so chooses, it is even authorized to disseminate information against legalization, being responsible for "taking such actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize the use" of illegal narcotics.


Regardless, the ONDCP’s role is worth understanding because if cannabis is ever legalized federally, the ONDCP could be a major player in policy, its mission being to “reduce substance use disorder and its consequences by coordinating the nation’s drug control policy through the development and oversight of the National Drug Control Strategy and Budget,” according to the White House.


The “Drug Czar” runs the ONDCP, which is responsible for overseeing international and domestic anti-drug efforts of various agencies, efforts that are aligned with the White House’s drug policy strategy. This year, the White House’s drug policy aims do not even mention cannabis, but rather focus on the opioid overdose and addiction epidemic. According to S.2028 - Drug Czar Responsibility and Accountability Act of 1998, the ONDCP’s responsibilities include countering drug trafficking within and into the US, reducing “negative health and social consequences of drug use,” and implementing drug treatment and prevention programs. The Czar advises the President and the National Drug Control Program on drug-control and “counter-drug programs,” and presents findings to Congress and the Senate regularly.


The National Drug Control Budget, overseen by the ONDCP, goes to eighteen Federal agencies and departments working towards the goals of the yearly National Drug Control Strategy. Among these are the Small Business Administration, the DOJ, the Department of Labor, and the Department of Health and Human Services, to name a few. We will be writing about some of these agencies and their roles and powers related to cannabis in future weeks.


On July 7, 2021, the ONDCP published a Request for Information in the Federal Register and is currently seeking public comments through August 6, 2021, on how “future proposed policies, budgets, regulations, grants, or programs might be more effective in advancing equity,” pursuant to President Biden’s Executive Order (E.O.) 13985 requiring that Federal agencies “assess whether, and to what extent, its programs and policies perpetuate systemic barriers to opportunities and benefits for people of color and other underserved groups.”


Moreover, on July 29th, the Senate and the House passed a $2.1 billion Appropriation Committee spending bill which included provisions directing the National Institutes of Health (NIH), under the Department of Health and Human Services, to work with the ONDCP and other agencies in order to “facilitate access to Schedule I drugs”—including cannabis—for research purposes. Additionally, the Committee believes that more cannabidiol research is necessary.


Surely, many public comments will point out that “advancing equity” across the nation requires legalizing marijuana and implementing an expungement program alongside a social equity investment program aimed at assisting minority, women, and veteran business owners. While it is possible that the ONDCP could pass on these public comments to President Biden and the Senate (the final roadblocks to federal legalization) it is more likely that such comments will be used to inform the ONDCP’s duties pertaining to the alignment of funding resources and oversight of the 18 federal agencies under its budgetary purview. As the Request for Information is a bureaucratic action aimed at bringing the agency into compliance with E.O. 13985, is unclear how much political pressure this will add to congressional legalization efforts, as the need to strengthen equity through legalization should already be clear to any lawmaker paying attention to this issue in good faith.