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Nardolillo points finger at Whitehouse in opioid epidemic

Providence Journal

10-20-17

Oct. 19--PROVIDENCE -- U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse's Republican opponent is trying to focus attention on the incumbent's role in passage of a controversial 2016 law that has been blamed for worsening the nation's epidemic of fatal opioid overdoses.

Whitehouse's co-sponsorship of the bill came up on Sunday, when The Washington Post and "60 Minutes," in a joint investigation, reported that the law has made it more difficult for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to take action against those who added to the proliferation of opioids.

In response to the coverage, state Rep. Bobby Nardolillo, Whitehouse's challenger in 2018, issued a news release asserting that The Washington Post's report says that Whitehouse "bears some legislative responsibility for the explosive growth of non-prescription opioid use in America."

Whitehouse spokeswoman Meagan McCabe said Wednesday night that she "absolutely contests" that interpretation.

She said Whitehouse was the author of major legislation designed to curb the opioid epidemic. And the senator continues to stand by the bill singled out in the investigation, McCabe said. He supported it "in light of concerns that DEA enforcement could sometimes jeopardize patients' access to needed drugs," she said.

Critics of the law say it allows far too much leeway to companies suspected of excessive distribution of prescription narcotics by giving them a chance to present corrective-action plans prior to any sanctions by the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Whitehouse's spokeswoman says the DEA is legally required to provide feedback on how the law is working, and if these reports cite problems with enforcement, Whitehouse will work to strike a better balance.

The Post has already identified some input in a legal journal article, written by John Mulrooney, the DEA's chief administrative law judge. Mulrooney wrote that the new law completely eliminated the DEA's ability to immediately suspend distributors or manufacturers of opioid drugs, hobbling the agency at a time when opioid-related abuse and deaths were rising markedly.

The DEA judge wrote that the new leeway is like allowing bank robbers to "round up and return ink-stained money and agree not to rob any more banks," says The Post report.

The Post's report says a 2014 House version of the controversial law raised so much concern that then Attorney General Richard Holder publicly opposed the bill. But by October of 2015, Holder was retired, and, under a new attorney general, Loretta E. Lynch, the Justice Department was committed to "working more closely" with drug companies, The Post's report says.

Under Lynch, it says, the DEA proposed legal language that would require the agency to show that a company's conduct was substantially life-threatening before it could suspend the company. This was after the agency met with 300 pharmaceutical industry representatives, according to The Post.

An email a member of Whitehouse's staff provided to The Post suggests that the DEA felt the new language "was the best of options offered" even though it didn't "fully address" previous concerns and "wasn't a great solution."

This description of the DEA's position was in an email a congressional liaison officer for the Justice Department sent to "a Senate staffer," says The Post.

By the time Whitehouse and eight other co-sponsors voted on the legislation in the spring of 2016, more than 179,000 Americans had already died in an epidemic of prescription opioid overdoses dating back to 2000, according to The Post's reporting.

Following the Senate vote, President Barack Obama signed the bill into law.

Obama's spokeswoman referred The Post to Michael Botticelli, who led the administration's office of drug control policy and who emphasized that neither the DEA nor the Justice Department objected to the bill during the legislative process.

An unnamed spokesman for Whitehouse, quoted by The Post, echoed that same point.

-- mreynold@providencejournal.com

(401) 277-7490

On Twitter: @mrkrynlds

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