WASHINGTON — President Biden will nominate Rahul Gupta, a March of Dimes executive and former West Virginia health commissioner, to serve as the country’s top drug policy official, according to two sources familiar with the selection process.
The pick, which the Washington Post first reported and the White House confirmed on Tuesday, comes amid a worsening drug overdose crisis and continued debate over how the federal government should best respond.
If confirmed, Gupta will serve as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, a clearinghouse agency that oversees most drug-related policy and gives input on the budgets of other drug policy agencies, like the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
The nomination “is another historic step in the Administration’s efforts to turn the tide of our nation’s addiction and overdose epidemic,” Kelly Scully, an ONDCP spokesperson, said in a statement. “Dr. Gupta brings firsthand experience as a medical doctor and public health official using evidence-based strategies to address the overdose epidemic in West Virginia.”
The selection concludes a largely under-the-radar process during which former congressman Patrick Kennedy and Kelly Clark, the former president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, publicly sought the position.
As the Biden administration’s focus shifts from the Covid-19 pandemic to other ongoing public health crises, Gupta will be tasked with slowing the overdose death rate and the related rise in disease often associated with injection drug use, like hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS.
Already, the White House has signaled an interest in expanding access to medication-backed therapy for opioid addiction and increasing funding for “harm reduction” services, like syringe exchanges or test strips used to detect the potent compound fentanyl, a major drive of recent overdose deaths.
As West Virginia’s health commissioner, Gupta is no stranger to the addiction crisis or the associated rise in infectious disease transmission. His tenure as the state’s top health official, however, included some controversy, mostly surrounding his treatment of a well-known needle exchange in Charleston, the state’s largest city. After Charleston’s mayor shuttered the harm-reduction program in 2018, Gupta issued a sharp report faulting it for operational mishaps like failing to track the number of condoms it gave out, Filter reported in March.
In the years that followed, opposition to syringe exchanges has only grown in West Virginia, culminating in a new law that some harm-reduction advocates have said may force many of the state’s remaining programs to close.
Gupta will face many of the same issues as the leader of the Biden administration’s overdose crisis response. Perhaps most pressingly, the White House has yet to act on a pending federal lawsuit that has prevented a first-of-its-kind supervised injection site from opening in Philadelphia.
Some federal lawmakers have also expressed interest in pursuing new legislation to combat the crisis, focused on topics ranging from funding for substance use treatment to loosening restrictions on doctors wishing to prescribe addiction-treatment medications.