With no fanfare, President Joe Biden’s administration has announced its priorities for, and some new appointees to, the White House’s Office on National Drug Policy. The wait for Biden’s pick as “drug czar” continues, however.
The priorities outlined by the ONDCP on February 3 for the administration’s first 100 days are historic: For what appears to be the first time in the drug-war body’s history, harm reduction and racial equity are explicitly included among its aims.
In a marked departure from the Trump administration’s stigmatizing pursuit of a “drug-free” country—promoting cruel, punitive policies up to and including the death penalty to combat “drug abuse”—the Biden-era ONDCP identifies “Enhancing evidence-based harm reduction efforts” and “Confronting racial equity issues related to drug policy” among its “five key policy priorities to address substance use disorder in America.”
The newly announced ONDCP appointees include Acting Director Regina LaBelle (announced previously, on January 20), a former ONDCP official under the Obama Administration; Chief of Staff Mario Moreno, a communications professional who worked with the Washington Office on Latin America think tank, which operates a human rights-oriented drug policy program; and Associate Director of Legislative Affairs Anne Sokolov. Lower-level appointees include Associate Director of Outreach Ariel “Air” Britt, Senior Policy Analyst Tom Hill and General Counsel Robert Kent, longtime chief counsel to New York’s Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services.
The White House seems to have done little to alert media to the changes. Drug Policy Alliance* Director of Media Relations Matt Sutton told Filter that National Public Radio (NPR) was the only outlet to have received the statement to his knowledge. Other mainstream publications appear to have been left in the dark, he suggested. At publication time, the notice cannot be found on ONDCP’s website.
“While our nation grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, we must also face the addiction and overdose epidemic that affects communities all over the country,” Moreno said in the statement. “I’m honored to be working to implement President Biden’s agenda, which will focus on saving lives by prioritizing public health approaches to substance use disorder, while finding ways to confront historic racial inequities in drug policy.”
The other three priorities are as follows: “Advancing recovery-ready workplaces and expanding the addiction workforce,” “Supporting evidence-based prevention efforts, related to both supply and demand reduction,” and “Expanding access to evidence-based treatment, including by lifting burdensome restrictions on medications for opioid use disorder.”
It should be noted that the Trump administration took some steps to expand access to opioid use disorder medications, both by temporarily easing some restrictions in response to the pandemic, and by seeking to eliminate some of the long-standing barriers presented by the buprenorphine “X-Waiver” in the last government’s dying days. The Biden administration appeared to have halted the latter move; its new statement may bode better.
“We are encouraged by this announcement by the Biden Administration and to see that the Office of National Drug Control Policy, for once, has an agenda that seems to be more focused on public health and curbing the overdose crisis—which has been exacerbated by the pandemic—than failed interdiction efforts,” said DPA Executive Director Kassandra Frederique in a press release. “The priorities, and Biden picking people with personal experience and public health backgrounds to lead them, reflect much of what we have been urging them to prioritize, such as racial equity, harm reduction and lifting barriers for people to access medication for opioid use disorder.”
The announcement is exciting for advocacy organizations, but there’s still a sense of caution. After all, the ONDCP’s permanent director has yet to be announced. Although currently serving as acting director, LaBelle will hold the permanent position of deputy director. According to Sutton, the Biden administration is considering three candidates for director, whose positions on harm reduction differ.
There’s former congressman Patrick Kennedy, founder of the pro-abstience, anti-legalization organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana, who’d likely not embrace harm reduction and is apparently fiercely lobbying Biden for the appointment. There’s Dr. Rahul Gupta, a former West Virginia public health commissioner who’s supported syringe service programs and was on Biden’s ONDCP transition team; Sutton is unconvinced how strongly he would advocate for harm reduction. And there’s Dr. Westley Clark—a substance use disorder expert and former director of SAMHSA’s Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, who strongly advocates OUD patient privacy and legal protections, co-authored a journal article arguing for cannabis legalization with the legendary former Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Edwards, and whom Sutton believes is the “strongest candidate.”
It’s unclear whether the ONDCP’s harm reduction priority will satisfy specific policy demands made by advocates in January.
*DPA previously provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.