Pot Matters: Trump’s Reactionary Anti-Pot HHS Secretary

Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

President-elect Donald Trump is nominating Congressman Tom Price (R-GA) to be the new Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. Price is adamantly opposed to the medical use of marijuana and marijuana law reform in general, having voted against several reform amendments in the House of Representatives.

In July 2014, Price voted against House Amendment 1086, sponsored by Denny Heck (D-WA), to HR 5016, which would have congressionally appropriated funds from being used to penalize financial institutions because they provided financial services to marijuana businesses authorized under state law. The amendment passed 213 to 192, with 186 votes from Democrats and 45 votes from Republicans.

Earlier, Price voted against House Amendment 748, sponsored by Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) to HR 4660. This amendment prohibited the Department of Justice from using appropriated funds to interfere with state medical marijuana laws. The amendment passed 219 to 189, with 170 votes from Democrats and 49 votes from Republicans.

Price also opposed marijuana reform measures in 2007 and 2005. In 2007, Price voted against House Amendment 674, sponsored by Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), which unsuccessfully sought to prohibit federal funds from being used to undermine state medical marijuana laws.  This amendment lost 262 to 165, with the majority composed of 182 Republicans and 79 Democrats.  In 2005, Price voted against House Amendment 272, also sponsored by Hinchey, an earlier attempt to prevent federal funds from being used to interfere with state medical marijuana laws. This amendment lost 262 to 161.

Price has also voted against allowing military veterans to take advantage of state medical marijuana laws. The only pro-reform measures Price has supported concerned expediting the availability of low-THC/high-CBD preparations and industrial hemp.

As Secretary of Health and Human Services, Price will have an influential platform to attack the medical use of cannabis and obstruct efforts to conduct meaningful research in support of expanded access for patients throughout the country.

Furthermore, he will have an important role is rallying support against marijuana legalization efforts. Price can use his office to encourage and support opposition to marijuana law reform, especially through emphasis on any and all research findings about negative effects of marijuana (regardless of their validity).

Trump is generally in favor of medical marijuana, and his administration faces several obstacles in reversing state-level legalization policies.

Nonetheless, this will not prevent his officials in HHS and other departments from opposing further reforms. Indeed, a major priority for anti-marijuana forces is to hold the line against further reforms. They will work hard to produce a new argument to rally public opposition, and as has been often the case in the past, this new argument will be based on so-called “new evidence” based on the “latest science” that marijuana is much more harmful than popularly believed. Tom Price will be in position to play a key role in facilitating this reactionary process.

While seemingly moderate on marijuana issues, Trump has embraced an old-fashioned, Nixonian, hard-line position on other illegal drugs. It may be that the heroin and opiate addiction problem will have a greater priority for the Trump administration than obstructing marijuana reform. But it is just as likely that the heroin problem will be used as an excuse to place marijuana reform on hold, that the crucial nature of fighting opiate addiction will be used to justify efforts to curtail any illegal drug use. This has always been a key facet of the old-school approach to justifying drug prohibition.

Key players in the Trump administration’s approach to drug policy will be the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), the Director of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).  Despite Trump’s apparent populism, his cabinet picks to date demonstrate two characteristics—a preference for loyalists and the influence of Vice President-elect Mike Pence. Pence, like Price, is no friend of the marijuana reform movement.

Just as Attorney General-designate Jeff Sessions will have to face the immigration issue, Tom Price will have his hands full fulfilling Trump’s campaign promise to repeal and replace Obamacare. However, all the early signs point to a resumption of the reactionary approach to the drug war that has characterized earlier Republican administrations.

It may not be possible to reverse recent reforms, but based on the nominations of Sessions and Price, the Trump bureaucracy will likely seek to hold the line, prevent further change and rally their supporters around a renewed effort to perpetuate prohibition.

Previously in Pot Matters: Sessions for Attorney General? Game On!

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