Trump’s drug czar is a friend to Big Pharma, enemy to pot advocates

Two months ago the Office of National Drug Control Policy looked to be going extinct. Now it’s got a new drug warrior coming on board.

Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA) addresses reporters on Capitol Hill in 2011. CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA) addresses reporters on Capitol Hill in 2011. CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

President Donald Trump will soon nominate Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA) to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), reversing an earlier proposal to eliminate the agency entirely.

Marino’s record suggests he is a doctrinaire drug warrior with views in line with Trump’s own nostalgia for hardline policies on narcotics enforcement. And the choice to continue the ONDCP at all is noteworthy, since the White House had suggested it would end the agency back in February.

The news left marijuana reform advocates “disappointed but not at all surprised to hear a marijuana prohibitionist is being selected as the next drug czar,” Robert Capecchi of the Marijuana Policy Project said in a statement. But ONDCP directors have always been anti-legalization and states have pushed forward anyhow. “We expect that trend to continue regardless of who the next drug czar is,” Capecchi said.

Drugs have popped up on Marino’s legislative record more than once since winning a House seat in 2010. He led efforts on two bills that passed, giving him an air of success.

But the bills — one targeting international drug traffickers, the other changing federal rules for doctors who prescribe powerful drugs — have each been criticized for misrepresenting their true impact on the world. The trafficking enforcement law was marketed as a way to go after “kingpins” but will end up hammering poor farmers coerced into growing coca plants in Colombia, Colombia Reports noted at the time. The prescription drug bill drew fervent opposition from a Drug Enforcement Agency official who said the lobbyist-backed measure would make it easier for pill-mill pharmacies to evade law enforcement.

Marino’s clear public interest in combating opioid abuse may hint he will not advocate the kind of marijuana crackdown that Attorney General Jeff Sessions would favor, Leafly’s Bruce Barcott argues. But the drug czar is not nearly as influential in such administration decisions. And even if Trump’s team does continue the Obama administration’s benign neglect approach to cannabis legalization states, the financial, medical, and criminal justice harms baked into that policy stance will continue.

Trump’s initial plan to end the ONDCP outright would likely have been welcome news for drug reform advocates and critics of the country’s failed, decades-long War on Drugs. The agency’s role is largely cosmetic rather than substantive. But the so-called “drug czar” has significant influence in public debate — and most prior holders of the office have used that authority to put a thumb on the scale in favor of drug-warrior ideology.

Trump’s pick will trigger another special election where Republicans must defend a House seat that appears “safe” based on recent elections, but may prove surprisingly vulnerable.

Merino’s tenth district of Pennsylvania voted for Trump by a 36-point margin in November, for Mitt Romney by a 21-point spread in 2012, and for Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) by 15 points in 2008. The seat is gauged as 16 percentage points more Republican than the national average, according to analyst Charlie Cook’s Partisan Voting Index.

Traditional political strategy would say Merino’s seat is too steep a hill for anyone with a (D) next to her name to climb. But that conventional wisdom is being tested elsewhere, in similarly red and rural districts vacated by a Trump nomination.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s old seat in Kansas is still in GOP hands after Tuesday’s special election there, where a little-known Democrat was able to make it a single-digits race — without help from national Democrats, and despite Trump having won that district by 27 points in November. Next week, another Dem challenger hopes to flip the Georgia seat formerly held by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. And an esoteric banjo player’s run for the Montana seat cleared by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is mobilizing grassroots Democratic groups that didn’t even exist a few months ago.