President Trump will name Pennsylvania Congressman Tom Marino (R) to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP — the drug czar’s office), CBS News reported Tuesday. The White House gave no official comment, but sources told CBS that an official announcement would come soon.
Marino’s legacy of legislative achievements around drug policy offers little comfort to reformers looking for signs that the “law and order” theme of the Trump administration may not be as bad as it sounds. Marino is a former prosecutor now in his third term in the House. His 2016 Transnational Drug Trafficking Act expands the ability of US prosecutors to use extraterritoriality to go after international drug traffickers, but while the law is touted as aiming at “kingpins,” but observers south of the border have argued that the law “targets people on the lowest rungs of the trafficking ladder, i.e. Colombia’s coca farmers.” Marino has also been a reliable vote in opposition to marijuana reform in Congress.
Marino’s rural congressional district has seen rising concern about heroin and opioids, and he serves on the House bipartisan committee combating the opioid epidemic. A bill he was an author and key supporter of in that area may suggest a more complex picture — the 2016 Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act, which supporters characterized as balancing the needs of patients, the pharmaceutical industry, and law enforcement, but which critics describe as a means of undercutting the DEA’s ability to hold pharmaceutical drug distributors accountable for the diversion of large amounts of opioid pain relievers.
The ability of pain patients to have access to the drugs that can help them is a continuing — and under-covered — issue in the debate around prescription opioids. So is the ability of physicians to appropriately prescribe them within running afoul of regulatory authorities or even drug enforcement authorities. If Marino’s bill reflects a concern with such issues, or a more general willingness to treat DEA pronouncements on such matters with skepticism, that could be useful. Conversely, however, the nation is also in the midst of a much more well-covered increase in the misuse of opioids. ONDCP has a role to play in promoting public health measures that can reduce overdoses and the risk of addiction. If Marino is too deferential to the preferences of big pharma lobbyists, while otherwise hooked on hard-line drug war approaches, opportunities to advance positive approaches for reducing the risks that go with opioids may be squandered.
In the fight over the 2016 Act, Marino, as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee on Regulatory Reform, clashed repeatedly with DEA Office of Diversion Control head Joseph Rannazzisi. In a 2014 conference call with congressional staffers, Rannazzisi warned that the bill, backed by a pharmaceutical industry lobbying campaign, would protect corporations engaged in criminal activity.
“[If t]his bill passes the way it’s written we won’t be able to get immediate suspension orders, we won’t be able to stop the hemorrhaging of these drugs out of these bad pharmacies and these bad corporations,” Rannazzisi recalled telling them. “What you’re doing is filing a bill that will protect defendants in our cases.”
Rannazzisi’s opposition infuriated Marino, who ripped into the veteran DEA official’s boss, then-DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart at a congressional hearing later that year.
“It is my understanding that Joe Rannazzisi, a senior DEA official, has publicly accused we sponsors of the bill of, quote, ‘supporting criminals,’ unquote” Marino said. “This offends me immensely.”
A week later, Marino and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) demanded that the Justice Department Office of the Inspector General investigate Rannazzis for “intimidating” members of Congress. Rannazzissi was replaced and retired in October 2015.
Marino’s record is good enough for anti-marijuana crusader and former ONDCP advisor Kevin Sabet of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (Project SAM). “My understanding is that Tom has a deep understanding of the issue and is excited to get started,” he enthused to CBS News.
But it’s not good enough for anyone interested in a truly progressive approach to drug policy.