Like virtually everyone else in the public health community, I strongly support needle exchange as an essential strategy to prevent HIV infection. I thus disagree with Representative James Ramstad's comments on this issue and on other matters such as medical marijuana. I agree with many of the arguments laid out by Maia Szalavitz recently in HuffPo.
There is more, however, to Jim Ramstad than his misguided position on syringe exchange indicates. He has real support in the community of men and women in recovery from substance use disorders. This week, the progressive organization Wellstone Action! released the below endorsement [emailed to me by a not-disinterested friend in this]:
To Whom It May Concern:
We urge you to support the appointment of Minnesota's Representative Jim Ramstad to a position within the new administration that addresses alcohol and drug addiction and mental health issues. 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.
The Board of Directors and Staff of Wellstone Action! are grateful for the recent passage of The Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Act. This legislation was important to the late U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone, and the passage of this act honors his work and legacy. The Act makes significant progress toward meeting a critical need, ensuring that mental health and addiction treatment are adequately covered by insurance companies and that insurance companies may no longer discriminate against people with mental illness. It has taken 12 years to pass this bill, and Rep. Jim Ramstad has worked tirelessly for this important measure from the start. Without his determination, knowledge, and skill, it might not have been possible to finally advance this cause.
There is much to be done to enforce the intent of this legislation. And there is more to be done to design strategies for helping individuals, families, and communities who struggle with the experience and consequences of mental illness or addiction. We know how deeply committed Congressman Ramstad is to creative, pragmatic, long term solutions to these issues. His expertise, experience, and insights will strengthen the new administration's ability to tackle issues and improve peoples' lives.
We urge you to take advantage of his strengths and accomplishment as you build the Obama team.
Co-chair, board of directors
As many HuffPo readers know, Wellstone Action! is
"A national center for training and leadership development for the progressive movement. Our mission is to honor the legacy of Paul and Sheila Wellstone by continuing their work through training, educating, mobilizing and organizing a vast network of progressive individuals and organizations."
Its National Advisory Committee includes dozens of progressive luminaries including Senator-to-be Al Franken, Senator Tom Harkin, Francis Fox Piven, Robert Reich Andy Stern, and many others.
I'm still not sold on Ramstad. To be honest, I am not sold on the continued relevance and value of ONDCP.
I do hope he finds a way to walk back from his misguided statements on some public health matters that got caught up in now-ancient culture wars. Some very solid people honor Rep. Ramstad's contributions and support him. That means something, whoever gets the nod.
The same friend sent me another endorsement, this time from the group Faces & Voices of Recovery.
January 11, 2009
Dear President-Elect Obama:
On the heels of your own historic victory, Faces & Voices of Recovery asks you to make history again by appointing a Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) who is both in recovery from addiction and who would bring stellar credentials to the position. We have been dismayed over the tenor of the discussions in the media about Congressman Jim Ramstad's potential as ONDCP Director. We write to provide a quite different view and to testify to Congressman Ramstad's outstanding qualifications for the position.
Faces & Voices of Recovery is a national 501(c)(3) non-profit organization committed to organizing and mobilizing the millions of Americans in long-term recovery from addiction to alcohol and other drugs, our families, friends, and allies to speak with one voice. We are working to change public perceptions of recovery, promote effective public policy in Washington, D.C. and in all 50 states, and demonstrate that recovery is working for millions of Americans. It is our mission to bring the power and proof of recovery to everyone in the nation.
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. It would stand as an affirmation that recovery is possible, and that there are no limits to what recovering people can accomplish. His appointment would also offer hope to the over 22 million Americans who have yet to recover and their loved ones. It would also repudiate the discrimination people in recovery experience when seeking employment and housing, and trying to obtain health and other forms of insurance.
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.
We stand together, as proud people in recovery, families, friends and allies to endorse Congressman Jim Ramstad for the position of Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
We look forward to working with you and your Administration to develop and carry out policies that will make recovery a reality for even more Americans and to tackling the discriminatory policies in jobs, housing, insurance and other areas that are keeping people who are no longer using alcohol and other drugs from getting their lives back on track.