As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump pledged to tackle prescription drug abuse and the flow of illegal drugs into the country. But his White House efforts are off to a rocky start so far.
Earlier this year, Trump appointed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to lead a opioid crisis task force. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, along with other administration officials including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have embarked on a listening tour of areas ravaged by the opioid epidemic.
But any goodwill gained from those efforts were likely undercut by a leaked document that provided a preview into the administration’s plan to effectively gut the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which takes the lead in addressing drug abuse issues, by reducing its funding by almost 95 percent.
Then came Friday’s announcement from Sessions and the Justice Department that it would reverse an Obama-era policy that urged prosecutors to try to avoid mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, and an emerging pattern from the administration is developing that is troubling for some lawmakers and advocates.
Such policies and proposals could be examples of an unpredictable White House that at times sends contradictory messages about its strategy.
But while Republican members continue to hold out hope Trump will keep his pledge to combat the opioid epidemic, a number of GOP senators are becoming more vocal in their criticism of his early actions on the issue.
“I am alarmed at the defunding [of ONDCP] because that, to me, signals less emphasis on what I think is a deep problem,” West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito said. “I think we need an overarching policy and I would like to see it remain in the White House where it would get the ultimate attention.”
Capito said she gave Sessions “an earful” about the possible funding cuts when he visited West Virginia last week for an event hosted by the Drug Enforcement Agency, which takes the lead on drug interdiction efforts.
That conversation may have fallen on deaf ears. A White House aide said it would be “premature” to comment on the leaked document, but added that the administration is “working collaboratively to create a leaner, more efficient government that does more with less of tax payers’ hard-earned dollars.”
“The executive branch commitment to fighting the drug problem goes well beyond a single office. Efforts to reduce supply, facilitate treatment, and drug abuse prevention are administered in every corner of the executive branch,” the aide said.
The fiscal 2017 spending bill that Trump signed into law this month will provide $150 million more this year to help fight the opioid epidemic. Should the administration choose to forge ahead and suggest reduced funding for the office in the pending fiscal 2018 budget proposal, it will likely not be met with much support in Congress.
In a letter sent last week to Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, Capito pledged to fight any proposed cuts to the ONDCP from her perch on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“I urge you to reconsider any plans to propose funding cuts for the ONDCP in the midst of this serious opioid epidemic and instead submit to Congress a budget proposal that will demonstrate the Administration’s strong commitment to aiding our state and local government in combatting drug addiction,” she wrote.
Capito is also part of a bipartisan effort to change the current funding formula to direct money included in last year’s health care law, known as the 21st Century Cures Act, for opioid recovery efforts to areas most hurt by the ongoing epidemic.
In a separate letter to Mulvaney spearheaded by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and other bipartisan lawmakers urged the administration to protect funding for the ONDCP.
“Eliminating critical prevention and enforcement programs would endanger our efforts to confront the drug overdose epidemic that has gripped our nation,” the senators wrote.
For Capito, Portman and others, this issue hits very close to home. West Virginia had the highest rate of deaths related to prescription drug overdoses in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, followed by New Hampshire, Kentucky and Ohio.
But it is not just funding that has galvanized Republicans into pushing back against the Trump administration. Following Sessions’ announcement on Friday, some GOP senators came out lock, stock and barrel against the shift back to harsher sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.
“Mandatory minimum sentences have unfairly and disproportionately incarcerated too many minorities for too long,” Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said in a statement. “Attorney General Sessions’ new policy will accentuate that injustice. Instead, we should treat our nation’s drug epidemic as a health crisis and less as a lock ’em up and throw away the key problem.”
But the decision did not meet total opposition among Republicans in Congress.
“[L]aw enforcement should side with the victims of crime rather than its perpetrators. This policy is simply common sense and will help reduce crime and drugs in our neighborhoods,” Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton said in a statement.
A Justice Department spokesman said the directive guarantees “that prosecutors treat all defendants fairly, equitably, and uniformly.”
Outside advocacy groups say they are baffled by the administration’s recent actions.
“To say you are going to address things and then put some policies in place that don’t make any sense to what we know works, and what the science says, it leaves one beyond just scratching their head and wondering where the impetus for this is,” said Tom Hill, vice president of addiction and recovery at the National Council for Behavioral Health.
Hill said the group has worked to help individuals with criminal backgrounds remove barriers to addiction recovery services and said the DOJ decision was a return to policies that have proved to be ineffective.
Still, Hill and other advocates hope that leadership in Congress will prevail over the administration.
“I believe that this issue has hit home to so many of our legislators and our representatives and they’ve heard from the people in their district that addiction is a disease,” said Emily Feinstein, director of health law and policy at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. “I think that they’ve taken this message to heart and want to fight for the best for our people.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized who spearheaded a letter to OMB Director Mick Mulvaney.