WASHINGTON — Frank Guinta, a former New Hampshire lawmaker who helped create an opioid crisis task force in Congress, has discussed serving as President Donald Trump’s “drug czar” with Trump’s team, according to several individuals familiar with the discussions.
Since the election, Guinta has spoken with top Trump aides about serving as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy — a position colloquially known as the nation’s “drug czar”— multiple individuals, speaking on condition of anonymity, told STAT this week.
The ex-congressman, who lost his re-election race in November, hampered by a campaign finance scandal, made the opioid crisis a central focus in his most recent term. He helped found a task force working on the issue and advocated for the major opioid legislation that passed last year, as well as the accompanying funding for its programs.
A Guinta spokesman declined to comment. The White House also declined to comment.
Guinta’s name has been circulating in Washington as a possible drug czar since Trump’s election. Another prominent candidate said to be in the mix is Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, a top Trump ally who has pursued an anti-drug campaign in that office. Bondi has met with Trump since his election and is believed to be in line for a top administration position.
Other possibilities include Dr. Andrea Barthwell, who worked in the drug policy office in the George W. Bush White House and is also believed to be under consideration, according to an individual familiar with the discussions.
A Bondi spokesman did not respond to requests for comment, and an aide to Barthwell declined to comment.
Formerly a tough-on-crime mayor of Manchester, N.H., Guinta told STAT in an interview last year that he had come to view drug addiction as a public health problem as much as a law enforcement one. New Hampshire is among the states hit hardest by the opioid crisis, with one of the highest per-capita rates of overdose deaths.
“After the research that I’ve done and the people that I’ve talked to, both people who are addicted and people in the field, as well as law enforcement, I believe that addiction is an illness and we need to treat it as such,” Guinta said. “Once you have the facts, it’s very clear to you.”
If he were tapped to be drug czar, Guinta would bring a mentality to the issue that aligns with the president’s. Trump spoke during the campaign about the need to help people who are addicted, but also to crack down on drugs entering the country from Mexico. Guinta, in his interview with STAT, said he now considers addiction an illness that needs to be treated, but also believes more can be more to stop the supply of heroin and other opioids like fentanyl from entering the country.
Trump repeatedly pledged during the campaign to address the opioid crisis as president. More than 30,000 Americans died of opioid-related overdoses in 2015.
The epidemic will likely be the focal point for the next drug czar, whoever it is. Other contentious issues, such as marijuana legalization, also fall under the office’s domain.
The director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy is formally nominated by the president and must be confirmed by the Senate. Kemp Chester, who worked in the office under Obama, is currently serving as acting director.