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 McCainMeghan McCain to produce 'Don't Sweat the Small Stuff' Lifetime movie starring Heather Locklear An August ultimatum: No recess until redistricting reform is done Meghan McCain on Pelosi, McCarthy fight: 'I think they're all bad' 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Asked if the bill should be repealed or amended, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden sets new vaccine mandate as COVID-19 cases surge Democrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire Trump takes two punches from GOP 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 CapitoBiden to return to pre-Obama water protections in first step for clean water regulations The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - US gymnast wins all-around gold as Simone Biles cheers from the stands The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - A huge win for Biden, centrist senators MORE (R-W.Va.) and Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanOn The Money: Justice Department says Trump's tax returns should be released | Democrats fall short of votes for extending eviction ban Photos of the Week: Olympic sabre semi-finals, COVID-19 vigil and a loris Senate starts infrastructure debate amid 11th-hour drama 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 McCaskillGiuliani to stump for Greitens in Missouri McCaskill shares new July 4 family tradition: Watching Capitol riot video Joe Manchin's secret MORE (D-Mo.) introduced legislation to repeal the bill on Monday, and Senate Minority Whip Dick DurbinDick DurbinInmates grapple with uncertainty over Biden prison plan Democrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire Biden backs effort to include immigration in budget package MORE (D-Ill.) also backs repeal.

But not all lawmakers are seeking to move that fast.
Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchDrug prices are declining amid inflation fears The national action imperative to achieve 30 by 30 Financial market transactions should not be taxed or restricted 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 WhitehouseLobbying world Kavanaugh conspiracy? Demands to reopen investigation ignore both facts and the law Christine Blasey Ford's lawyers blast FBI's Kavanaugh investigation as 'sham' 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 GrassleyChuck GrassleyThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - US gymnast wins all-around gold as Simone Biles cheers from the stands The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - A huge win for Biden, centrist senators 'Blue wave' Democrats eye comebacks after losing reelection 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 ToomeyBlack women look to build upon gains in coming elections Watch live: GOP senators present new infrastructure proposal Sasse rebuked by Nebraska Republican Party over impeachment vote 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.