Former Minnesota congressman, self-acknowledged recovered alcoholic, and treatment and recovery advocate Jim Ramstad is widely rumored to be in the running for head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), and he is garnering both support and opposition from within the drug reform community, broadly defined.
While Ramstad has serious credentials on treatment and recovery, his opposition to needle exchange programs spurred drug policy analyst and author Maia Szalavitz to oppose his nomination in an article in the Huffington Post. "Ramstad may be a drug warrior in recovering person's clothing," she wrote, noting that he also opposes medical marijuana.
"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," Szalavitz, a former injection drug user herself, continued. "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."
Szalavitz wasn't the only alarmed harm reductionist. Psychologist Andrew Tatarsky authored an open letter signed by more than 450 substance use and mental health treatment professionals warning that both SAMHSA and the drug czar's office need leadership that "supports evidence-based policies and that will make decisions based on science, not politics or ideology" and "we have reason to believe that Congressman Ramstad is not that person." In addition to Ramstad's opposition to harm reduction measures, Tatarsky noted that throughout his congressional tenure, Ramstad had failed to take any action on sentencing reform.
A Ramstad nomination also drew concern from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), which noted in a blog post that Ramstad had voted against medical marijuana at every opportunity, voted against needle exchange, and had been appointed to the board of directors of Joe Califano's anti-drug reform propaganda organization, the National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA).
But while drug reformers and advocates of science-based policies raised concerns, parts of the treatment community are supporting Ramstad. In a January 11 letter to the Obama transition team, the treatment advocacy organization Faces and Voices of Recovery, a stalwart in many drug policy reform efforts, supported the Ramstad nomination.
"Clearly, the appointment of a person in long-term recovery from addiction to this important position would inspire the millions of Americans and their families who have battled addictions," wrote the group's executive director, Pat Taylor. "Even if Congressman Ramstad were not in recovery, he would be an excellent candidate for the Director of ONDCP. A Member of Congress for 18 years, he is a highly experienced and respected legislator who led the successful battle to require health insurers to cover addiction treatment at parity with other medical conditions. He founded and co-chaired the bi-partisan Addiction Treatment and Recovery Caucus and the Law Enforcement Caucus on Capitol Hill and has been influential in shaping drug policy in countries around the globe. He was a practicing criminal justice attorney for five years and has served on numerous non-profit boards; all of whom have the reduction of the global demand for drugs as part of their mission."
And Ramstad has picked up support from progressive groups like his home state Wellstone Action, the legacy of progressive Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone. In a January 9 letter, the group argued that despite Ramstad's misguided stands on needle exchange and medical marijuana, he still deserved the nomination. "Congressman Ramstad's leadership on policies and programs within the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy will serve President-elect Obama's administration and millions of Americans well," Wellstone Action said.
The reform movement is split on Ramstad, with treatment advocates coming down in favor and harm reductionists and drug law reformers opposed. As addiction skeptic Dr. Stanton Peele noted in the Huffington Post Tuesday: "For Wellstone, the Kennedy's, and many other progressives, the idea of treating substance abusers as disease sufferers is tremendously appealing -- indeed, one thrust of the drug policy reform movement is to shift from incarcerating addicts to treating them! But, for reformers, courting treatment advocates has come a cropper as addiction-as-disease proponents back a man who stands against drug policy reform's basic value of finding new, pragmatic approaches to drugs in America."
The drug reform movement is broad and encompasses many diverse actors. Where they come down on the Ramstad issue reflect philosophical differences as well as institutional interests. Just because we're part of a broader movement doesn't mean we're always going to agree.