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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 McCainLive coverage: McSally clashes with Sinema in Arizona Senate debate Is there difference between good and bad online election targeting? Murkowski not worried about a Palin challenge 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Asked if the bill should be repealed or amended, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellJuan Williams: Trump’s policies on race are more important than his rhetoric It’s Mitch McConnell’s Washington – and we’re just living in it Trump makes new overtures to Democrats 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 CapitoThe Hill's Morning Report — Presented by PhRMA — Dem path to a Senate majority narrows GOP shrugs off dire study warning of global warming Overnight Health Care — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Senators face Wednesday vote on Trump health plans rule | Trump officials plan downtime for ObamaCare website | Lawmakers push for action on reducing maternal deaths MORE (R-W.Va.) and Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanElection Countdown: O'Rourke brings in massive M haul | Deal on judges lets senators return to the trail | Hurricane puts Florida candidates in the spotlight | Adelson spending big to save GOP in midterms How Kavanaugh got the votes  Collins to support Kavanaugh, securing enough votes for confirmation 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 McCaskillElection Countdown: Cruz, O'Rourke fight at pivotal point | Ryan hitting the trail for vulnerable Republicans | Poll shows Biden leading Dem 2020 field | Arizona Senate debate tonight GOP Senate candidate: Kavanaugh 'debacle' 'hugely motivating' to Missouri voters Democrats hold fading odds of winning Senate this November MORE (D-Mo.) introduced legislation to repeal the bill on Monday, and Senate Minority Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDurbin opposes Saudi arms sale over missing journalist Noisy democracy, or rude people behaving like children? Kavanaugh tensions linger after bitter fight MORE (D-Ill.) also backs repeal.

But not all lawmakers are seeking to move that fast.
Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchHatch mocks Warren over DNA test with his own results showing '1/1032 T-Rex' Romney defends Trump’s policies as ‘effective,' disputes he led 'never Trump' movement GOP fractured over filling Supreme Court vacancies in 2020 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 WhitehouseDemocrats won’t let Kavanaugh debate die Senate poised to confirm Kavanaugh after bitter fight Hillary Clinton bursts out laughing about Kavanaugh's 'revenge on behalf of the Clintons' remark 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 GrassleyDems angered by GOP plan to hold judicial hearings in October American Bar Association dropping Kavanaugh review Clinton's security clearance withdrawn at her request 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.