Expose on DEA Opioid Policy Prompts Repeal Bill from Senator

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., is introducing a bill to repeal a 2016 law that trimmed the prosecutorial powers of DEA. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., is introducing a bill to repeal a 2016 law that trimmed the prosecutorial powers of DEA. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

A Democratic senator on Monday reacted to a weekend expose on loosened enforcement against unlawful distributors of opioids by introducing a bill to repeal a 2016 law that trimmed the prosecutorial powers of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., announced her coming bill to repeal the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act, saying, “Media reports indicate that this law has significantly affected the government’s ability to crack down on opioid distributors that are failing to meet their obligations and endangering our communities.”

This weekend, The Washington Post and CBS News’ “60 Minutes” teamed up to report the results of an investigation that included interviews with departed and disgruntled DEA officials who suggested that the bill trimming their authorities was the fruit of lobbying by major distributors of the opioid painkillers that have caused thousands of cases of addiction and deaths.

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The reporters quoted Joe Rannazzisi, who used to run the DEA diversion control office, and others describing their frustrations at trying to bring cases against distributors who sometimes ship millions of pills into small rural towns. “The DEA says it has taken actions against far fewer opioid distributors under a new law,” the report said. “A Justice Department memo shows 65 doctors, pharmacies and drug companies received suspension orders in 2011. Only six of them have gotten them this year.”

The reports also documented a “revolving door” of DEA officials who left for higher-paying jobs in industry. “At least 46 investigators, attorneys and supervisors from the DEA, including 32 directly from the division that regulates the drug industry, have been hired by the pharmaceutical industry since the scrutiny on distributors began,” CBS said.

The bill, which passed both chambers by unanimous voice votes and was signed by President Obama, was sponsored by Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., President Trump’s nominee to run the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, as well as Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. The legislation had been opposed by DEA and then-Attorney General Eric Holder, CBS reported.

Trump on Monday was asked about the DEA story and Marino's nomination by reporters during a Rose Garden appearance with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

"We’re going to look into that very closely,” the president said, calling Marino "a good man.  I have not spoken to him, but I will speak to him and I will make that determination."

If Marino's sponsorship of the bill clashes with the goal of reducing the opioid  threat, “If it's 1 percent negative to doing what we want to do, I will make a change,” Trump said,  He promised a major announcement next week on declaring an opioid crisis.

Neither Marino nor Blackburn responded to Government Executive inquiries by publication time.

Asked by Government Executive for a comment on Monday, a DEA spokesman said in a statement that the agency “uses a wide array of tools – administrative, civil and criminal – to fight the diversion of controlled substances. While only a minute fraction of the more than 1.7 million individuals with DEA registrations are involved with this type of activity, we work every day to identify the sources of the diverted prescription drugs in our communities.”

Over the past seven years, the statement continued, more and more individuals are facing criminal charges. “We have removed approximately 900 registrations annually, preventing reckless doctors and rogue businesses from making an already troubling problem worse,” said the agency, which is being led by acting administrator Robert Patterson. “Our investigators initiated more than 10,000 cases and averaged more than 2,000 arrests per year.”

Also on Monday, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., whose state has a high proportion of victims of opioid abuse and was featured in the reporting, called on Trump to withdraw Marino’s name. “I was horrified when I read the Washington Post piece and cannot believe the last administration did not sound the alarm on how harmful that bill would be for our efforts to effectively fight the opioid epidemic,” he said. “We are sent here by the people to represent them, to protect their interests and to improve their lives and create opportunities for everyone. That is why I am demanding the White House to pull Rep. Marino’s nomination from consideration. During the biggest public health crisis since HIV/AIDS, we need someone leading the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy who believes we must protect our people, not the pharmaceutical industry.” 

Update: This story has been updated with comments from President Trump at the White House Monday

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