Portman on controversial DEA bill: ‘It slipped through’

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

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Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

Sen. Rob Portman Wednesday said he was unaware of the details of a 2016 bill that effectively quashed the Drug Enforcement Administration’s ability to stop distributors from sending prescription drugs to doctors’ offices and pharmacies that fed the opioid epidemic.

The law passed by unanimous consent — a voice vote, with no members of the House or Senate opposing it. While members of the DEA and Justice Department told Washington Post and 60 Minutes reporters that they opposed the legislation, no one in Portman’s office was aware of the agencies’ concerns, he told a Washington Post panel convened Wednesday to discuss the epidemic.

“I frankly asked my office, ‘Did we hear from anybody?’ and the answer was no,” the Ohio Republican said.

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Portman said the bill went through Congress at the same time his own drug treatment bill — the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act — went through Congress, and much of the focus was on that bill. The DEA bill, he said, “sort of slipped through.”

Speaking with Sens. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., and Joe Manchin, D-W.V., Portman said he and other senators plan to review the law, which effectively made it far tougher for the DEA to crack down on those pouring pain pills into communities. Portman has focused heavily on drug addiction issues dating back to his time in the House of Representatives, and during his 2016 re-election campaign for the Senate he ran ads highlighting his work fighting the opioid epidemic.

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The Post story is largely credited with causing Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., to withdraw his name from nomination to be the nation’s next drug czar. Marino was a leading cosponsor of the 2016 bill, as was Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican who is now running for governor.

Portman wasn’t the only one who said he was unaware of the implications of the bill Wednesday. Manchin said his staff was “not intricately involved” and was told it was aimed at ensuring that cancer patients and the terminally ill had access to pain relief — not that it could make it harder for the DEA to crack down on those purposefully dealing pills.

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“We never intended it to be a wholesale market to open up the floodgates,” he said. “Because in West Virginia, the floodgates were already open.”

Manchin has cosponsored a bill aimed at repealing the 2016 law. “No one intended for this to happen,” he said.

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