Newly controversial opioid enforcement law under fire

Newly controversial opioid enforcement law under fire
© Getty Images

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.

ADVERTISEMENT
“Of course it should be fixed,” Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat Meghan McCain knocks Bannon: 'Who the hell are you' to criticize Romney? Dems demand Tillerson end State hiring freeze, consult with Congress 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Asked if the bill should be repealed or amended, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat McConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Brent Budowsky: A plea to Alabama voters 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 women: Rules on harassment must change Congress, here's a CO2-smart tax fix to protect, create jobs Women, Dems leading sexual harassment discussion in Congress: analysis MORE (R-W.Va.) and Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Overnight Finance: House approves motion to go to tax conference — with drama | GOP leaders to consider Dec. 30 spending bill | Justices skeptical of ban on sports betting | Mulvaney won't fire official who sued him How four GOP senators guided a tax-bill victory behind the scenes 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 McCaskillDemocrats turn on Al Franken Trump rips Dems a day ahead of key White House meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (D-Mo.) introduced legislation to repeal the bill on Monday, and Senate Minority Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDemocrats turn on Al Franken Minnesota's largest newspaper calls on Franken to resign Democratic senator predicts Franken will resign Thursday MORE (D-Ill.) also backs repeal.

But not all lawmakers are seeking to move that fast.
Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Ryan pledges 'entitlement reform' in 2018 Utah governor calls Bannon a 'bigot' after attacks on Romney 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 Regulation: Net neutrality supporters predict tough court battle | Watchdog to investigate EPA chief's meeting with industry group | Ex-Volkswagen exec gets 7 years for emissions cheating Overnight Energy: Watchdog probes Pruitt speech to mining group | EPA chief promises to let climate scientists present their work | Volkswagen manager gets 7 years for emissions cheating EPA head pledges to protect climate scientists 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 GrassleyGrassley blasts Democrats over unwillingness to probe Clinton GOP and Dems bitterly divided by immigration Thanks to the farm lobby, the US is stuck with a broken ethanol policy 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 ToomeyNewly declassified memos detail extent of improper Obama-era NSA spying Overnight Tech: FCC won't fine Colbert over Trump joke | Trump budget slashes science funding | Net neutrality comment period opens Appeals court decision keeps lawsuit against NSA surveillance alive 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.