While the decline is a positive step, many remain concerned about drug research and the lack of leadership in the DEA.
President Trump is celebrating—and claiming credit for—the first drop in the overdose death rate in decades, but political insiders say that his White House remains unorganized, especially when it comes to drug policy.
During an event last month that highlighted the overdose death decline, Trump said, “This is a meeting on opioid[s] and the tremendous effect that’s taken place over the last little period of time.”
“They’re going to make the political argument that they’re winning,” Regina LaBelle, Obama-era chief of staff for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), told STAT News. “Which they can say, since deaths are down. But I get concerned that we’re going to take our eye off the ball on the broader issue of addiction.”
One major concern that some people have is that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) remains without a leader. It’s been that way for more than two years, which Clinton-era “drug czar” General Barry McCaffrey finds absurd.
“The White House is so disorganized and dysfunctional that they can’t pluck an apple sitting at eye level in front of them,” he said. “Why wouldn’t you have a DEA administrator, for God’s sake? In 14 workdays, you could come up with a dozen superlative people with political chops who would take that job.”
The Fight For Drug Research
While the DEA does not have a leader, the agency finds itself at odds with other government agencies. On June 20, one DEA official asked Congress to classify all fentanyl analogues as Schedule I substances. The DEA has argued that this is necessary for law enforcement, but others, including a researcher from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), say that this would inhibit research on opioids and treatment for opioid use disorder.
As part of the process, the DEA expressed its desire to control drug classifications without input from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the NIDA.
Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) was so concerned by this power grab that he led a group of eight Senators (including one Republican) who authored a letter expressing their worries.
“We are concerned that the failure to engage necessary health experts vests far too much authority to a law-enforcement agency and may result in action that will deter valid, critical medical research aimed at responses to the opioid crisis,” the senators wrote.
Michael Collins, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, said that the agency is “playing on people’s fear in order to make a power grab that predates the fentanyl crisis.”
“We are being asked to give DEA control of the scheduling process and give up due process and allow more prosecutorial power—and give up researching these substances and potentially saving lives as a result of that research,” he said.