Newly controversial opioid enforcement law under fire

Newly controversial opioid enforcement law under fire
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Several lawmakers are pushing to repeal or revisit a law critics say enables the flow of deadly and addictive opioids, hours after President Trump’s drug czar nominee withdrew his name amid the controversy.

The little-noticed legislation is reportedly undermining the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) ability to police drug distributors and was heavily influenced by industry lobbying, according to a joint Washington Post and “60 Minutes” investigation published Sunday.  The report was based in part on a high-ranking whistleblower within the DEA.

The controversy comes as the nation is grappling with an opioid crisis, with the rate of overdoses from prescription drugs and heroin quadrupling since 1999.  Lawmakers are taking a new look at the law following the report, with several seeking an outright repeal.

“Of course it should be fixed,” Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump informally offered Cohn CIA job before changing his mind: report Schiff: I thought more Republicans would speak out against Trump Trump presses GOP to change Senate rules MORE (R-Ariz.) said.

The Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act passed in 2016 with little fanfare, and no objections in the House or the Senate. President Obama then signed it into law.

By raising the standard of evidence required by DEA, critics say it weakened their authority to prosecute drug distributors that were providing opioids onto the market with little oversight, according to the investigation.

Asked if the bill should be repealed or amended, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate tees up Yemen vote for Tuesday Senate confirms Trump's border chief House leaves out ObamaCare fix from must-pass funding bill MORE (R-Ky.) said: “Well it passed unanimously, apparently with the approval of President Obama and his DEA. You’ll have to ask the sponsors about it as to what the way forward will be.”

Several lawmakers are caught in the crossfire.

Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.) was the legislation’s chief advocate in the House, and on Tuesday withdrew his nomination to lead the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Marino in a statement stood by his work on the bill, blamed the news media and a disgruntled DEA employee for the controversy and said he was stepping down to avoid being a distraction to Trump’s agenda.

“Given these facts and the importance of this legislation, [I] find it sad and disheartening that the news media have left behind any concept of balanced reporting and credited conspiracy theories from individuals seeking to avert blame from their own failures to address the opioid crisis that proliferated during their tenure,” he said.

Confirming Marino, an early backer of President Trump, would put moderate Republicans in states with high rates of deaths from opioids — such as Sens. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoLawmakers propose boosting park funding with oil money Lawmakers trade barbs, torch Trump at DC soiree Overnight Health Care: Senators unveil bipartisan opioid bill | DOJ to seek reimbursements from opioid companies | Groups looking to end AIDS fear losing ground under Trump MORE (R-W.Va.) and Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanMisinformation campaign is at the center of opposition to common sense sex trafficking legislation This week: Congress races to prevent third shutdown With bills on the table, Congress must heed the call to fix our national parks MORE (R-Ohio) — in a tough spot.

Capito said the law should be repealed and that she believes there’s momentum to do so.

Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillGOP Senate candidate slams McCaskill over Clinton ties Dems meddle against Illinois governor ahead of GOP primary Republicans insist tax law will help in midterms MORE (D-Mo.) introduced legislation to repeal the bill on Monday, and Senate Minority Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinTrump vows tougher borders to fight opioid epidemic Clinton: 'I meant no disrespect' with Trump voter comments Lawmakers rally to defend Mueller after McCabe exit MORE (D-Ill.) also backs repeal.

But not all lawmakers are seeking to move that fast.
Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchSenate GOP: Legislation to protect Mueller not needed Week ahead: Lawmakers scramble to avoid another shutdown Lighthizer set to testify before Senate Finance on trade next week MORE (R-Utah) was a sponsor of the original bill in the Senate. He’s referred to the report as flawed, and took to the Senate floor Monday to “set the record straight.” 

Hatch said he negotiated the legislation with the DEA and that “DEA and [Department of Justice] themselves generated the language that critics now claim is so problematic.”

But, he told The Hill, he’s “open to try to resolve the problems.”

“I’m not against a bill that solves the problems in the right way,” he said.

Another sponsor, Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseOvernight Energy: Zinke grilled on travel, offshore drilling plans | Pruitt says California can't dictate emissions standard | Dems sound off on elephant trophy policy Overnight Energy: Dems probe EPA security contract | GAO expands inquiry into EPA advisory boards | Dems want more time to comment on drilling plan Opioid crisis spurs Medicaid funds push MORE (D-R.I.), is standing by the legislation, according to a spokesman.

“The DEA has provided Congress with no evidence that the law’s provisions have diminished the agency’s ability to crack down on bad actors,” the spokesman said, but added if a report on implementation raises concerns, the senator would revisit the issue.

The Judiciary Committee is now exploring holding an oversight hearing to examine if changes should be made and if the agency’s positions on the law have changed, Taylor Foy, a spokesman for the panel’s chairman, Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyOvernight Tech: Facebook faces crisis over Cambridge Analytica data | Lawmakers demand answers | What to watch for next | Day one of AT&T's merger trial | Self-driving Uber car kills pedestrian Overnight Cybersecurity: Trump-linked data firm Cambridge Analytica attracts scrutiny | House passes cyber response team bill | What to know about Russian cyberattacks on energy grid Overnight Finance: Congress races to finish .2T funding bill | What to look for in omnibus | AT&T merger trial kicks off | Stocks fall on tech troubles | Trump targets Venezuelan cryptocurrency | Record SEC whistleblower payout MORE (R-Iowa), wrote in an email.

He added that the DEA and Justice Department were both consulted on the bill at the time and both approved of it.  The Washington Post-“60 Minutes” story suggested several DEA officials opposed the bill but their opinions were squashed by a confluence of factors.

Others say the law should at least be revisited.

“I’m a little surprised that it passed unanimously in both houses, was signed by President Obama and got no opposition from the DEA at the time,” Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyWH backpedals on Trump's 'due process' remark on guns Top GOP candidate drops out of Ohio Senate race Newly declassified memos detail extent of improper Obama-era NSA spying MORE (R-Pa.) said. “That’s not the way controversial legislation usually ends up, but hey, if there’s problems, then we ought to revisit them.”

Portman was a leader in the effort to pass the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, a bright spot of bipartisanship last congressional session that authorized grants to battle the crisis.

He aired concerns with what the bill Marino sponsored appears to do.

“The DEA should be able to effectively go after bad actors and I think Congress should re-examine this issue,” Portman said in an emailed statement.

He touted his bill that would make it easier to stop mail shipments of powerful synthetic opioids.