Following a report that his nominee to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy had played a leading role in weakening federal agents’ ability to stop suspicious shipments of opioids, President Trump told a press conference Monday that “we’re gonna be looking into” the choice, Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa.
An explosive investigation by the Washington Post and “60 Minutes” found that Marino, who had accepted large donations from the pharmaceutical industry, had been a prime sponsor of legislation last year that undermined the ability of Drug Enforcement Administration agents to stop drug distributors from providing corrupt doctors with opioids for the black market. According to the reports, the companies had ignored DEA warnings to stop selling hundreds of millions of pills for years under suspicious circumstances — raking in billions in profits.
Marino, who was an early supporter of Trump’s presidential campaign, was the top advocate for the bill, the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act.
During a Monday afternoon press conference with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Trump was asked whether he still had confidence in Marino for the position sometimes called the nation’s “drug czar.”
“He’s a great guy. I did see the report. We’re gonna look into the report. We’re gonna take it very seriously,” Trump said.
The president said he will make a major announcement, “probably next week,” about combating the drug crisis and the opioid abuse epidemic in particular.
“And I want to get that absolutely right. This country, and frankly the world, has a drug problem,” Trump said. The world has a drug problem. But we have it and we’re going to do something about it.”
Driven by the opioid abuse epidemic, drug overdoses are the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 91 Americans die from an opioid overdose every day. More than 33,000 Americans lost their lives to opioid overdoses in 2015, and early figures suggest that number will be higher for 2016.
“We’re gonna be looking into Tom,” Trump said.
A representative for Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told Yahoo News that they have not yet received Marino’s questionnaire, “and as such, have not yet set a date for a hearing to evaluate his qualifications.”
Andrew Kolodny, the co-director of opioid policy research at Brandeis University, characterized Marino as having “no real experience on this issue” other than worsening the epidemic by working for years to push the bill through Congress.
“I think Tom Marino is an awful pick. We need someone running the Office of National Drug Control Policy who can help tackle a complex problem and coordinate a federal response to a severe epidemic of addiction and overdose deaths. This is not a place for Trump to reward a friend with a political payback.”
As head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, a position that requires Senate confirmation, Marino would be tasked with promoting and implementing strategies to stop drug abuse and promote access to substance abuse treatment. Trump made the nomination on Sept. 1, 2017.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., published an open letter urging Trump to withdraw his nomination of Marino. He said Marino’s advocacy has tied the hands of the DEA, and suggested that he does not understand the scope of the epidemic or simply values his industry ties more.
“Congressman Marino no longer has my trust or that of the public that he will aggressively pursue the fight against opioid abuse,” Manchin said.
— Senator Joe Manchin (@Sen_JoeManchin) October 16, 2017
Although he says Marino is a poor choice, Kolodny doesn’t blame the bill he sponsored for the opioid abuse epidemic, which has been building for years.
“The roles played by opioid manufacturers and the failure of the FDA really played a much bigger role in creating the epidemic,” he said. “Certainly the failures of the DEA and the distributors helped fuel the problem, but the epidemic was caused by a sharp increase in the overprescribing of opioids.”
Experts say this overprescribing of opioids was the result of a campaign mounted by manufacturers — most notably Purdue Pharma — and the FDA’s failure to regulate doctors and pharmacies.
Another close friend of the pharmaceutical industry, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, helped finally get the law through the Senate in 2016.
Matt Whitlock, a Hatch spokesman, said the Washington Post story felt more like the plot from a Netflix original series than the actual drafting and passage of the bill in question.
“There are critical checks and balances throughout the process of a bill becoming a law, and if the DEA and DOJ had the concerns then that they are voicing now, they had an absolute responsibility to use the many tools at their disposal to reshape the text or to prevent it from becoming law,” Whitlock said in a statement.
If they were concerned, Whitlock continued, the DEA and DOJ should have encouraged congressional representatives to vote against the bill and told then President Barack Obama not to sign it into law. But the industry-friendly bill passed with unanimous consent, which is usually reserved for noncontroversial bills.
“We cannot speak to the DEA or DOJ’s thinking, but we can only assume the reason they did not make a stronger effort to oppose the bill at the time was because they, like Sen. Hatch, believed this legislation would improve collaboration between law enforcement and industry members in combatting the opioid crisis,” Whitlock said.
The Healthcare Distribution Alliance (HDA), an industry group, lobbied heavily for Marino’s bill — accusing the DEA of abusing its power and making it too difficult for legitimate patients to access opioids. After the Washington Post story appeared, HDA President and CEO John M. Gray released a statement defending the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act as “a meaningful common-sense solution to create a pathway for information exchange between the DEA and its registrants that did not previously exist.”
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