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.

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“Of course it should be fixed,” Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainObama, Bush veterans dismiss Trump-Putin interpreter subpoena Controversial Trump judicial nominee withdraws Trump vows to hold second meeting with Putin 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Asked if the bill should be repealed or amended, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSunk judicial pick spills over into Supreme Court fight Hillicon Valley: Trump's Russia moves demoralize his team | Congress drops effort to block ZTE deal | Rosenstein warns of foreign influence threat | AT&T's latest 5G plans On The Money: Trump 'ready' for tariffs on all 0B in Chinese goods | Trump digs in on Fed criticism | Lawmakers drop plans to challenge Trump ZTE deal 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 CapitoSenate GOP attempts to wave Trump off second Putin summit Lots of love: Charity tennis match features lawmakers teaming up across the aisle Senate takes symbolic shot at Trump tariffs MORE (R-W.Va.) and Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanUS to provide additional 0M in defensive aid to Ukraine Senate GOP attempts to wave Trump off second Putin summit Bipartisan bill would bring needed funds to deteriorating National Park Service infrastructure 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 McCaskillPolling analyst: Same Dems who voted for Gorsuch will vote for Kavanaugh Pollster: Kavanaugh will get Dem votes Overnight Health Care: Trump officials explore importing prescription drugs | Key ObamaCare, drug pricing regs under review | GOP looks to blunt attacks on rising premiums | Merck to lower some drug prices MORE (D-Mo.) introduced legislation to repeal the bill on Monday, and Senate Minority Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinSenate approves resolution warning Trump not to hand over US officials Deal to fix family separations hits snag in the Senate Senate Democrats block resolution supporting ICE MORE (D-Ill.) also backs repeal.

But not all lawmakers are seeking to move that fast.
Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchLighthizer to testify before Senate next week as trade war ramps up Senators introduce bipartisan bill to improve IRS Senate panel advances Trump IRS nominee 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 WhitehouseSenate panel advances Trump IRS nominee Senate Dems protest vote on controversial court pick Who is Andrew Wheeler, EPA's new acting chief? 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 GrassleySunk judicial pick spills over into Supreme Court fight Andrew Wheeler must reverse damage to American heartland Senators push to clear backlog in testing rape kits 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 ToomeyOvernight Defense: Pick for South Korean envoy splits with Trump on nuclear threat | McCain blasts move to suspend Korean military exercises | White House defends Trump salute of North Korean general WH backpedals on Trump's 'due process' remark on guns Top GOP candidate drops out of Ohio Senate race 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.