The White House Office of Management and Budget was not aware of a policy change last year that severely tied the hands of drug enforcement officers going after suspicious sales of prescription painkillers, according to an investigation by The Post and “60 Minutes.” These are the same drugs that have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people across the country over the past decade.
And why would OMB need to know? Nobody in Congress objected when it voted to approve the legislation last year that would make the change, which made it virtually impossible for the Drug Enforcement Administration to freeze narcotics shipments by requiring the agency to prove “imminent danger.” It slipped by — considered “uncontroversial.”
The Justice Department and the DEA didn’t object to the legislation either. Nor did top drug-policy officials at the White House when they handed it to President Barack Obama to sign.
There was a time when top DEA officials were unified in their objection to the change. But those officials moved on. They left the agency. Some found jobs in more lucrative positions, including advocating for pharmaceutical companies.
The policy change simply slipped through the cracks.
How could policymakers have missed this? After all, the opioid crisis faced no shortage of media coverage last year, with the opioid overdose epidemic claiming the lives of 91 Americans a day — the majority of whom started their addictions through prescription painkillers. Certainly they saw the gut-wrenching news about morgues in Ohio renting out cold-storage trailers to make room for all of the epidemic’s corpses. And surely they read about Indiana’s 40 percent spike in children entering the state’s foster-care system, thanks in large part to substance abuse in their family.
Of course, a handful of people did care about this legislation. One memo from the DEA described the bill as “fixing a problem that doesn’t need fixing.” Another said it was “without basis in case law or Congressional findings.”
But DEA actions against pharmaceutical companies were “dangerous to legitimate business,” said Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.), who sponsored the legislation. And wasn’t everybody tired of the failed War on Drugs anyway? Wouldn’t it be better if the DEA had a better relationship with the industry that it was investigating for flooding the country with deadly, highly addictive drugs?
Besides, this was a busy time. The day the House approved the policy change, Donald Trump was complaining about a “rigged” system as he raced toward clinching the Republican Party’s nomination to run against Hillary Clinton.
And the day the bill made its way to Obama’s desk, Trump was in Suffolk County, N.Y., decrying a corrupt system in Washington where lawmakers are beholden to the interest of lobbyists. “We have people that are in office that do not love our country so much, believe me,” Trump said at the Suffolk rally. “They can’t because they sell out all the time.”
How could Republicans or Democrats justify spending any of their precious time during the election cycle on the minor details of drug policy while facing such a surge of populism at the polls?
We often characterize the victims of the opioid epidemic as the “forgotten men and women” of America. Economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton classified the crisis as that of “despair” — a failure of the U.S. economy to make room for impoverished workers left out of the labor force in the process of globalization and increased automation.
We heard these themes over and over again throughout the 2016 election from our candidates. But it seems these poor people are left out of our political process, too, without so much as an objection from their representatives in Congress or their president when industry interests take away the DEA’s ammo.
And so many people still wonder how an outsider could have possibly won the White House.