President Donald Trump will name Pennsylvania Congressman Tom Marino (R) to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP, or the drug czar's office), CBS News reported Tuesday. Marino's legacy of legislative achievements around drug policy, however, raise serious questions about whether he is the right choice.
The White House had no official comment Tuesday, but sources told CBS News Marino is in the final stages of completing his paperwork and an official announcement would come soon. Marino's office had no comment.
Marino is a former prosecutor now in his third term in the House, and will step down from the Congress to take up his new position. His rural congressional district has seen rising concern about heroin and opioids, and he serves on the House bipartisan committee combating the opioid epidemic.
He has authored two recent successful drug policy bills, but both have their critics. The 2016 Transnational Drug Trafficking Act expands the ability of U.S. prosecutors to use extraterritoriality to go after international drug traffickers, but while the law is touted as aiming at "kingpins," but observers south of the border have argued that the law "targets people on the lowest rungs of the trafficking ladder, i.e. Colombia's coca farmers."
Marino was also an author and key supporter of the 2016 Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act, which supporters characterized as balancing the needs of patients, the pharmaceutical industry, and law enforcement, but which critics describe as a means of undercutting the DEA's ability to hold pharmaceutical drug distributors accountable for the diversion of large amounts of opioid pain relievers.
In the fight over that bill, Marino, as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee on Regulatory Reform, clashed repeatedly with DEA Office of Diversion Control head Joseph Rannazzisi. In a 2014 conference call with congressional staffers, Rannazzisi warned that the bill, backed by a pharmaceutical industry lobbying campaign, would protect corporations engaged in criminal activity.
"This bill passes the way it’s written we won’t be able to get immediate suspension orders, we won’t be able to stop the hemorrhaging of these drugs out of these bad pharmacies and these bad corporations," Rannazzisi recalled telling them. "What you’re doing is filing a bill that will protect defendants in our cases."
Rannazzisi's opposition infuriated Marino, who ripped into the veteran DEA official's boss, then-DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart at a congressional hearing later that year.
"It is my understanding that Joe Rannazzisi, a senior DEA official, has publicly accused we sponsors of the bill of, quote, 'supporting criminals,' unquote,” Marino said. “This offends me immensely."
A week later, Marino and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) demanded that the Justice Department Office of the Inspector General investigate Rannazzis for "intimidating" members of Congress. Rannazzissi was replaced and retired in October 2015.
If his legislative legacy is any indication, Marino is will be the sort of drug czar who is tough on Colombian peasant farmers, but not so tough on major US pharmaceutical opioid manufacturers.
That's good enough for anti-marijuana crusader and former ONDCP advisor Kevin Sabet of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (Project SAM). "My understanding is that Tom has a deep understanding of the issue and is excited to get started," he enthused.
But it's not good enough for anyone interested in a progressive approach to drug policy.