Obama's Drug Czar Pick: Will We Ever Get Past Having a War on Drugs?

Ed. Note: At the bottom of this essay is a list of criteria from the Drug Policy Alliance about the qualities of a drug czar that Obama should be looking for.

On paper, Jim Ramstad -- who is rumored to be Obama's choice for drug czar -- looks like the ideal man for the job . He's a recovering alcoholic himself and a Congressman who championed legislation recently passed to provide equal insurance coverage for addictions and other mental illnesses.

To top it off, he's a Republican, giving Obama what looks like a relatively harmless way to make his cabinet more bipartisan. Choosing Ramstad would appear to make a powerful statement about addiction as a medical, not a moral issue.

Unfortunately, Ramstad may be a drug warrior in recovering person's clothing. There is one issue that has consistently separated those who put science and saving lives in front of politics. That is needle exchange programs for addicts to prevent the spread of HIV and other blood borne illnesses.

Even President Clinton now says he was "wrong" when he ignored the recommendations of every scientific and medical organization in the world that has examined the question -- from the AMA to the World Health Organization -- and refused to lift the federal ban on funding.

Needle exchanges have been shown repeatedly to reduce HIV and contrary to the claims of opponents, they help addicts get into treatment.

But Bill Clinton had a drug czar -- Barry McCaffrey -- who said that needle exchange "sent the wrong message," and would make him seem soft on drugs. McCaffrey fought against it and Clinton now says he "regrets" caving in to drug war politics.

While Obama has said that he favors federal funding, the last thing we need is another drug czar to talk him out of it.

Ramstad looks like that person. I am awaiting comment from his office to see if he has changed his position, but his history on the issue isn't good. In 1992, he said, "Federal funds should be used to get people off drugs not facilitate drug abuse…let's support programs that save lives, not destroy lives." By then, dozens of studies from around the world already suggested that clean needle programs not only reduce HIV, but attract addicts into recovery.

When I was injecting drugs in the '80s in New York, when 50% of IV drug users were HIV positive, a friend taught me to use clean needles. She probably saved my life -- she certainly didn't destroy it. I have now been free of cocaine and heroin for 20 years.

But people like Ramstad believe that it would have been better to deny me the information and equipment I needed to protect myself than to risk "enabling" my addiction. And they push this view that risks addicts' lives regardless of evidence that shows that their fears are groundless!

In 1999 -- with the data now overwhelming -- Ramstad voted to prevent Washington DC from using its own money to fund syringe exchange.

DC has the country's highest HIV rate. Not coincidentally, until after that provision was repealed late last year, it had no publicly funded needle exchange. African Americans have been the group most affected by the failure to prevent the spread of HIV amongst IV drug users, their partners and children.

New York, by contrast, started needle exchange relatively early and saw infection rates cut in half over the following years, according to a 1998 study.

Ramstad also -- again, against the evidence -- opposes medical marijuana and supports federal policing and prosecution of providers and patients in the states that have made it legal. These states have not seen the rise in teen drug use that opponents like the Congressman predicted.

The opposite, in fact, happened -- as is the case in countries that have decriminalized marijuana like Holland. The UK's "downgrading" of cannabis offense to a lesser status was also accompanied by a drop in use.

There's simply no evidence that allowing sick people to get needed medication conflicts with helping addicts. Obama has said he does not support these prosecutions -- will Ramstad push him in the wrong direction here, too? In an economic crisis, do we really want to spend federal time and money locking up medical marijuana providers and sick people?

While Ramstad has opposed some interdiction efforts and called for more treatment funding, someone who doesn't even believe that addicts have a right to life if they aren't in treatment is not the kind of recovering person that I want representing me as drug czar.

That's not change, President Obama -- that's more of the same. Don't make the mistake that Bill Clinton did and install a drug czar who will ignore science and push dogma.

While it's great to have a recovering person as an example, just having a disease and talking with others who've recovered the same way you did does not make you an expert. We need someone who knows the science, recognizes that there are many paths to recovery -- and understands that dead addicts can't recover.


From the <a href="http://drugpolicy.org">Drug Policy Alliance</a>:

The Drug Policy Alliance believes our nation’s next drug czar should be chosen based on the following criteria:

1. Are they committed to enacting and supporting evidence-based policies? ONDCP should make decisions based on science, not politics or ideology.

2. Are they committed to reducing the harms associated with both drugs and punitive drug laws? We need a new bottom line for U.S. drug policy.

3. Do they think drug use should be treated as a health issue not a criminal justice issue? To paraphrase former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, we need a surgeon general not a military general or police officer.

4. Do they welcome and encourage debate and research? We need a drug czar who is open-minded and willing to consider every alternative.

5. Are they committed to reducing the number of nonviolent offenders behind bars? Our country’s next drug czar should be fully committed to major sentencing reform.

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