President Joe Biden’s pick to head up federal drug policy worked for a major marijuana business last year, according to his financial disclosure reports.
Rahul Gupta, the nominee for director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), worked as a consultant to Holistic Industries, a multi-state cannabis operator, for nine months in 2020.
This adds to the novelty of this particular administration pick, who had already caught the attention of reform advocates given his record overseeing the implementation of West Virginia’s medical marijuana program as state health commissioner and chair of a key advisory board. He’s also publicly recognized both the therapeutic and economic potential of cannabis reform.
For a person who would be expressly tasked with maintaining the status quo of prohibition as the nation’s drug czar, this is unconventional—but generally welcomed by marijuana advocates nonetheless. Gupta has frustrated harm reduction activists, however, because as a state official he oversaw the decertification of a syringe access program.
At Holistic, Gupta’s role was to consult on compliance issues, according to CNN, which was first to report on the disclosure documents. And Holistic WV Farms I, LLC—which is affiliated with Holistic Industries—evidently succeeded in demonstrating its compliance with state regulations in West Virginia, earning 10 medical cannabis retail permits, as well as cultivation and processor permits.
On the retail side, only one other company has received as many permits as Holistic did under the state program that its consultant Gupta once oversaw.
It’s unclear at this point what role, if any, Gupta played in helping Holistic to secure those approvals. According to the disclosure documents, he earned $10,000 for his services to the company.
“Dr. Gupta’s work for Holistic Industries involved consulting on regulatory compliance matters for prescribing medicinal cannabis in West Virginia where medical cannabis had already been legalized,” a White House spokesperson told CNN. “He had overseen the development of such a program in the state as required by state law.”
Holistic Industries describes itself as “one of the largest and fastest growing private MSOs (Multi-State Operators) in the country.”
In a disclosure document section on his work for Holistic, Gupta says that, per federal statute, he agrees not to “participate personally and substantially in any particular manner involving specific parties in which I know that client is a party or represents a party, unless I am first authorized to participate” for one year after he last provided services. In this case, he worked for the medical cannabis company from March through December 2020.
It’s uncertain what the probationary period would mean for the prospective drug czar’s work on marijuana policy issues if he is confirmed by the Senate.
In any case, the ONDCP director is explicitly required under statute to oppose efforts to legalize currently controlled substances, including cannabis.
Prohibitionists had held out hope that the president would select someone whose views more closely align with their own, such as former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), a cofounder of anti-legalization organization Smart Approaches To Marijuana (SAM), who had personally lobbied for the nomination.
When the Gupta nomination was announced, however, they expressed optimism about the choice and said they feel he will maintain the status quo, regardless of his record on cannabis. It’s unclear whether the new reports about him directly working with, and profiting from, a marijuana business will make them less sure about that.
It also remains to be seen whether Gupta will face a grilling over his work in the cannabis industry from senators who oppose legalization during his confirmation hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, as Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta (no known relation to Rahul) did over her past remarks supporting drug decriminalization.
Gupta’s views on adult-use legalization are not clear, but he was proactive in promoting patient access to medical cannabis before leaving the state government to join the nonprofit March of Dimes, which is focused on public health issues related to mothers and children.
Rusty Williams, who served as a patient advocate on the West Virginia medical marijuana board alongside Gupta, told Marijuana Moment in an earlier interview that he once had a personal conversation with the official about the origins of marijuana prohibition. He said that the then-chair broached the topic of why marijuana was criminalized in the first place, and then agreed that federal officials intended to use prohibition as a tool to oppress communities of color.
Gupta was “willing to make things happen a year early,” Williams said at the time, referring to the issuance of the board’s report on the state medical cannabis program. “I was encouraged with the conversation that he and I had about the roots of prohibition.”
In 2018, the West Virginia medical marijuana board released a report that included series of recommendations on the state program. Led by Gupta, the body advised that patients should have access to marijuana in flower form for “administration by vaporization or nebulization”—something that was not initially allowed in the program as approved by lawmakers.
When it comes to smoking that raw plant material, Gupta noted, that patients “can combust themselves if they want, but that’s not what we’re advocating or recommending.”
The report also called for the removal of “limitations on the number of permits the Bureau for Public Health may issue for growers, processors, and dispensaries,” as well as the removal of “the limitation that a grower or processor may not also be a dispensary to permit the vertical integration of growers, processors and dispensaries.”
When medical marijuana legalization was approved by the West Virginia legislature in 2017, Gupta said that, like most people, he was “surprised.”
“It’s an understatement,” he said at the time. “However, what we have in front of us today is a law as it stands in an attempt to compassionately address a number of disorders with chronic pain at the heart of it.”
When members of the state medical cannabis advisory board were appointed, the official said the panel will help facilitate “a transparent and accountable process critical to ensuring a comprehensive system that will help citizens suffering from debilitating diseases like cancer.”
“I am fully committed to making this particular piece of legislation successful,” he said of the medical marijuana legalization bill. “This bill was put together very quickly and, obviously, no bill is perfect. We certainly discussed the shortcomings, but that doesn’t mean the program won’t be successful and be on track.”
“We want to do it because lives are at stake. They are depending on the program to be successful,” he added. “Many people are in chronic pain. We want to take on that challenge.”
Gupta said that the board had received feedback from a range of stakeholders interested in the implementation of the cannabis program, but they’d also “received calls from people who are suffering who want to have some sort of relief. They are asking when they can get their patient ID card and go to their doctors to get certification.”
“The human side of it—you can’t ignore that piece,” he also said. “Science explains some of it, but not all of it.” He went on to say that there is a potential economic benefit to legalize for medical use, noting that “rarely are there policies enacted that are win-win,” and if done right, “you can actually get a true win-win on this.”
But Gupta isn’t necessarily a fan of marijuana use for everyone. In 2019, he teamed up with then-Surgeon General Jerome Adams on a public education campaign meant to warn against the use of cannabis during pregnancy and adolescence.
“March of Dimes applauds today’s release of the US Surgeon General’s Advisory on the dangers of marijuana use during pregnancy for both mom and baby,” he said. “The evidence clearly shows that no amount of marijuana has been proven safe to use during pregnancy or while breastfeeding. Unfortunately, this message is not resonating with all expecting women and maternity care providers, and marijuana use among pregnant women has doubled between 2002 and 2017.”
Gupta has also periodically posted on social media about marijuana policy developments, such as the enactment of regulations for Colorado’s marijuana program and a 2010 report that more teens were smoking cannabis than tobacco.
— Rahul Gupta, MD, MPH, MBA (@DrGuptaMD) May 29, 2013
More teens smoke marijuana than cigarettes http://usat.ly/frkZ7N
— Rahul Gupta, MD, MPH, MBA (@DrGuptaMD) December 15, 2010
Part of the reason that advocates are monitoring each of Biden’s nominations is because skepticism prevails about how his administration will approach cannabis policy considering that the president remains opposed to legalization, and so each development sheds light on what to expect in the coming years.
Attorney General Merrick Garland made clear during his oral and written testimony before the Senate, for example, that he does not feel the Justice Department should use its resources to go after people acting in compliance with state marijuana laws. He reiterated the point in May.