Health groups wary of Ramstad for ‘drug czar’

December 3rd, 2008 – 3:26 PM by Mitch Anderson

Two weeks ago when retiring U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad’s name was bandied about in D.C. as President-elect Obama’s new drug czar, supporters cheered it as a showing of Obama’s desire for a bipartisan cabinet.

Ramstad, an 18-year Republican veteran of the U.S. House with a public history of alcoholism and recovery, helped pass legislation earlier this year to bolster health coverage for people with mental health and substance abuse conditions, making him an appealing choice to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy. But now his potential nomination is hitting a little turbulence.

More than 40 health-care and treatment groups, including the Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project, sent a letter to the Obama transition team Wednesday pointing to Ramstad’s past votes against needle-exchange programs and the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes as evidence that he might not be a part of the change on which Obama so successfully ran.

The letter specifically addresses three votes in 1998, 2000 and 2007 against needle-exchange programs, while other skeptics point to five votes against medicinal marijuana.

Although Ramstad hasn’t publicly commented on his interest in the post, let alone outlined a would-be drug policy, the groups still aren’t taking any chances in their break from a Bush administration-style war on drugs.

“Representative Ramstad has consistently opposed policies that seek to reduce drug-related harm and create common ground on polarizing issues,” the letter says.

The Senate would have to approve any Obama nominee, but Ramstad already has some Democrats in his corner, such as Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy whom he worked with to enact the mental health parity legislation.

No candidates for the drug czar’s job have been officially announced by the team running Obama’s search for a successor to current ONDCP head John Walters.

Ramstad’s office declined to comment Wednesday.

3 Responses to "Health groups wary of Ramstad for ‘drug czar’"

Dan Cain says:

December 4th, 2008 at 12:21 pm

Opposing Ramstad because of his votes on needle exchange and medicinal marijuana is shortsighted and ill advised. If one is familiar with ONDCP, it is readily apparent that Ramstad is the most qualified candidate in the history of the agency. Typically the director is someone who shares political ideology with the President and views addiction solely within the purview of interdiction and corrections. The only qualification Bill Bennett, the first drug czar had, other than his conservative credentials, was the fact that he once went on a date with Janis Joplin. Barry McCaffrey, Clinton’s drug czar, may have known how to fight a war in Southeast Asia, but had no comprehension of a “War on Drugs”, and the fact that it is not fought in a geographical location but in hearts and minds.

Ramstad understands addiction, and more importantly, he understands recovery. He has firsthand knowledge that people can and do redeem themselves. He also has a history of standing up to demogauges, even those in his own party, who grandstand on issues simply to preserve their office. He is bi-partisan, principaled and knowledgable. How often does that happen in government?

Several of the groups opposing his appointment are well known to be “trojan horses” for legalization. Several others, while credible in their limited area of concern, appear not to understand the big picture. We need a lot of change in terms of our drug control policy. But first and foremost we need to reverse the criminalization of addiction, and the lifetime collateral consequences associated with making a mistake. We need to give recovery an equal place at the table with law enforcement and interdiction. We need to recognize that supply reduction will never be successful without demand reduction. And Jim Ramstad is the right someone who can lead us in these endeavors.

Kevin Bruce says:

December 4th, 2008 at 5:38 pm


You make a good point that “we need to reverse the criminalization of addiction.” But someone who does not support needle exchange does not get it.

The science on needle exchange is so strong that it is indisputable — needle exchange reduces the spread of HIV without increasing drug use. It is the most cost-effective strategy available for reducing HIV/AIDS in the drug using community. Ramstad’s opposition is obviously not science-based. It must be based on emotion or ideology. Is that what we need in a drug czar?

Similarly with medicinal marijuana. The federal government has been blocking research for many years, but before those blockages were put in place there was a great deal of research showing marijuana to be safe and effective. Treating people as criminals for using a medicine that allows them to pursue cancer treatment, reduce pain, control muscle spasm and keep their eye site once again seems based in ideology and not in science — nor even in human treatment of people.

If you want the facts on these and other issues visit

Rep. Ramstad is on the right track but being wrong on these issues makes him wrong for drug czar. There are many excellent public health officials from around the country in cities/states that have needle exchange, treatment on request and treat medical marijuana with some sanity. President-elect Obama should be looking towards those types of health officials to take on the job of drug czar.

Obama can begin to provide the change we need in drug policy by signaling that drug abuse is a health problem that is best handled by health officials — not political hacks like Bennet, generals like McCaffery or police chiefs like Brown — it is time for America to make health not war.

adlib says:

December 4th, 2008 at 9:21 pm

Is the office of “Drug Czar” really that of Nation’s chief health officer for chemical addiction? Besides conjuring up supply side visions of monopoly on the ultimate commodity that sells itself, the name Drug Czar also suggests joint DEA, FBI, Coast Guard and door busting operations in general. How does the job description read?

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