Trump: On second thought, let's look for a new drug czar

It didn’t take long for the other shoe to drop on Rep. Tom Marino. After questions arose over his sponsorship of a controversial bill that critics blame for enabling the opioid crisis, Donald Trump announced Marino’s decision to decline the nomination as drug czar:


The warning signs about Marino’s nomination came yesterday, when Trump declined to express confidence in the man he chose for the job of handling the opioid crisis:

President Trump said Monday that he will declare a national emergency next week to address the opioid epidemic and declined to express confidence in Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.), his nominee for drug czar, in the wake of revelations that the lawmaker helped steer legislation making it harder to act against giant drug companies.

Trump’s remarks came amid widespread reaction across the political spectrum to a Washington Post/“60 Minutes” investigation that explained how Marino helped guide the legislation, which sailed through Congress last year with virtually no opposition.

Trump said “we’re going to be looking into” the investigation, while many Democrats and at least one Republican called for modification or outright repeal of the law. Democrats also urged Trump to drop Marino as his pick to lead the Office of National Drug Control Policy. …

The president also said he had not yet spoken with Marino about the Post/“60 Minutes” report, but if he determines that Marino’s work was detrimental to the administration’s goal of combating opioid addiction, “I will make a change.”

And so he has. Trump may have had little choice, as moderate Democrats like Joe Manchin had begun to say things like “over my dead body” about Marino’s confirmation odds. That, however, didn’t let Manchin off the hook with CNN’s Chris Cuomo, who wondered why Manchin didn’t do something about Marino’s bill when he had the chance in the Senate:


“But couldn’t you read the bill?” Cuomo asks when Manchin complains that the bill’s laxity wasn’t explained to him at the time. Manchin claims that he read the bill, but then argues that he basically listened to the sponsors’ arguments rather than rely on the text, which … doesn’t sound like he comprehended the bill, even if he did read it.

In other words, there’s a lot of facepalming to go around in Washington this week on the opioid crisis.

So how did the new law obstruct efforts to control opioids? According to the Washington Post, it stripped the DEA of its authority to seize suspicious shipments, a tool that had kept the opioid level down in the US:

The new law makes it virtually impossible for the DEA to freeze suspicious narcotic shipments from the companies, according to internal agency and Justice Department documents and an independent assessment by the DEA’s chief administrative law judge in a soon-to-be-published law review article. That powerful tool had allowed the agency to immediately prevent drugs from reaching the street. …

With a few words, the new law changed four decades of DEA practice. Previously, the DEA could freeze drug shipments that posed an “imminent danger” to the community, giving the agency broad authority. Now, the DEA must demonstrate that a company’s actions represent “a substantial likelihood of an immediate threat,” a much higher bar.

“There’s no way that we could meet that burden, the determination that those drugs are going to be an immediate threat, because immediate, by definition, means right now,” Rannazzisi said.

Chief DEA Administrative Law Judge John J. Mulrooney II agreed.

In his article planned for the winter issue of the Marquette Law Review, Mulrooney wrote: “If it had been the intent of Congress to completely eliminate the DEA’s ability to ever impose an immediate suspension on distributors or manufacturers, it would be difficult to conceive of a more effective vehicle for achieving that goal.”


It’s worth noting — again — that the bill passed both chambers of Congress on unanimous votes. The bill may have been a bad idea, but literally no one on Capitol Hill thought so at the time. One man at the DEA, John Rannazzisi, warned that the sponsors were “supporting criminals,” a claim that was so outrageous that its hyperbole overshadowed Rannazzisi’s warnings, which in the end no one heeded on either side of the aisle.

Still, Marino’s role in getting the bill passed, plus his campaign donation ties to the pharmaceutical industry, makes him a toxic choice for drug czar. Trump will need to find another choice, preferably one with a track record of tough policies and/or action on opioids. A former federal prosecutor rather than a member of Congress might make a better choice. Trump had better make some decisions soon, though. NPR’s Tamara Keith points out that Marino’s withdrawal leaves the Trump administration without the key officials needed to deal with the opioid crisis, about which Trump will declare an emergency next week:

Might be a good time to declare an emergency in the White House and get some appointments made.


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John Sexton 8:40 PM on September 21, 2023