The US House Just Passed 7 Bills to Tackle the Opioid Crisis: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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The statistics about the opioid crisis are staggering. Opioid-related overdoses rose by about 28 percent between 2015 and 2016, and more than 63,000 Americans died of drug overdoses that year. According to a recent study, 20% of all deaths of 25–34-year-olds in 2016 were related to opioids.

Last week, the US House of Representatives passed seven bills focused on addressing the opioid crisis. Some were constructive; others, less so.

The GOOD

The Comprehensive Opioid Recovery Centers Act (H.R.5327) would require the Department of Health and Human Services to award grants to establish or operate comprehensive opioid recovery centers, with priority granted to areas with high per capita drug overdose mortality rates. The bipartisan bill passed 383 to 13, with the only opposing coming from a small group of right-wing GOP Freedom Caucus members.

The Safe Disposal of Unused Medication Act (H.R.5041) would allow hospice employee to handle controlled substances in the residence of a deceased hospice patient to assist with disposal of the controlled substances. Currently, hospice employees are not able to do, so if a patient dies, the medications would be left in that person’s home. The bill passed unanimously.

The Assisting States’ Implementation of Plans of Safe Care Act (H.R.5890) would provide states with greater funding for technical assistance and training around plans or safe care of infants affected by the opioid crisis, and increase reporting requirements. (Sen. Bob Casey, the lead sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, outlined the bill here.) It passed 406 to 3, with only 3 Republicans voting NO (Justin Amash of MI-03, Andy Biggs of AZ-05, and Tom Massie of KY-04).

The Improving the Federal Response to Families Impacted by Substance Use Disorder Act (H.R.5891) would establish an inter-agency task force (covering Health and Human Services, Education, Agriculture, and Labor) designed to develop a strategy on how federal agencies can implement a coordinated approach to the opioid epidemic, with a particular focus on programs that support infants, children, and their families. It passed 409–8, with the dissenting votes coming from the right-wing of the Republican caucus.

The BAD

The Transitional Housing for Recovery in Viable Environments Demonstration Program (THRIVE) Act (H.R.5735) sounds good at first glance: housing for those in recovery is an important part of addressing the problem.

And yet the bill has many problems. It requires the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to set aside 10,000 Section 8 housing vouchers (0.5% of the total) each year for nonprofits chosen by HUD that will coordinate with a treatment and job skills training program for individuals in recovery. However, since the bill does not authorize any new funding, it ends up robbing Peter to pay Paul. And the nonprofits being chosen to administer the vouchers won’t have actual experience with administering housing vouchers (as a public housing agency would). Beyond that, the bill also lacks meaningful oversight mechanisms.

It passed 230 to 173. 218 Republicans and 12 Democrats voted for it, and 166 Democrats and 7 Republicans voted against it.

The 12 Democrats were Ami Bera (CA-07), Josh Gottheimer (NJ-05), Ron Kind (WI-03), Conor Lamb (PA-18), Seth Moulton (MA-06), Tom O’Halleran (AZ-01), Jimmy Panetta (CA-20) Scott Peters (CA-52), Collin Peterson (MN-07), Jacky Rosen (NV-03), Brad Schneider (IL-10), and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ-09).

The Securing the International Mail Against Opioids Act (H.R.5788) seeks to address the issue of opioid importation and thus requires the Postal Service to obtain and transmit advanced electronic information to the US Customs service on mail coming from abroad. Although the bill passed unanimously out of Committee, House Republicans unilaterally added an amendment to allow the Commissioner of Customs to impose financial penalties on the USPS if the USPS accepts certain international mail shipments without advance electronic data.

Danny Davis (IL-07) expressed concerns about these changes on the floor:

I unfortunately cannot support H.R.5788. The Republican leadership insisted on last-minute changes to impose civil penalties on the Postal Service for any accepted shipment lacking advance electronic data without allowing enough time to fully vet the impact of the changes with critical stakeholders. I am concerned about the fairness of imposing civil [penalties] for individual shipments lacking electronic data when the Postal Service lacks direct control over whether foreign postal operators provide this data. I am concerned that having an Executive Branch agency impose penalties on another would set up an adversarial in addressing illegal drug trafficking rather than a collaborative relationship. I am also concerned that penalties are based on individual shipments rather than systematic violations.

The bill passed 353 to 52. 49 Democrats and 3 Republicans voted against it. The 3 Republicans were Justin Amash (MI-03), Alex Mooney (WV-02), and Don Young (AK-AL).

Here are the 49 Democrats:

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Keith Ellison (MN-05) and Barbara Lee (CA-13) were both absent for the vote.

THE UGLY

The Stop the Importation and Trafficking of Synthetic Analogues Act (H.R. 2851) would escalate the drug war — increasing penalties for low-level drug offenses and concentrating power in the office of our white supremacist Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, at the expense of the Department of Health and Human Services and the US Sentencing Commission.

The ACLU, NAACP, Human Rights Watch, and other civil rights and civil liberties groups wrote to Congress in strong opposition to the bill:

If passed, HR 2851 will broadly expand penalties for drug offenses, concentrate power within the Department of Justice, punish people who lack criminal intent, and overcriminalize certain behavior. The legislation attempts to address the very real problem of synthetic opioid overdoses in the United States, but we believe that its methods are misguided. Instead of punishing people who use drugs and low-level dealers, legislation should focus on expanding treatment opportunities and targeting the international drug trade.

The United States’ opioid epidemic is real, and overdoses are increasing year after year. Synthetic opioids such as fentanyl have played a crucial role in this increase. But HR 2851 would do nothing to fix this. This bill would disproportionately incarcerate low-level drug offenders who did not import or package the drugs, and often are unaware of the chemical composition of the drugs. Many more people would be incarcerated for selling drugs to support their own substance use disorder.

Harsh penalties do not deter people with substance use disorders from using or buying drugs. People use and buy drugs because they have a chemical dependence and believe that they will not be caught. As the Department of Justice itself has repeatedly recognized, longer sentences do not deter drug use or drug crime.[i] Believing that harsh penalties will deter drug use misunderstands addiction. Since the 1980s, we have had tough penalties for heroin use and distribution, yet heroin consumption has actually increased. Although SITSA includes a carve out for possession, it will not prevent mass incarceration of low-level drug offenders, in part because quantities that constitute possession are not defined.

Today, heroin use and overdoses are at an all-time high. Just as harsh heroin laws did not deter heroin use, harsh synthetic opioid laws will not stop synthetic opioid use. Instead of prison, treatment will better address the underlying issues that fuel the opioid epidemic.

The bill passed 239 to 142. 197 Republicans and 42 Democrats voted for it. 130 Democrats and 12 Republicans voted against it. (As you can tell, a lot of folks were absent).

The 12 Republicans were Justin Amash (MI-03), Andy Biggs (AZ-05), Mo Brooks (AL-05), Matt Gaetz (FL-01), Thomas Garrett (VA-05), Jody Hice (GA-10), Jason Lewis (MN-02), Tom Massie (KY-04), Tom McClintock (CA-04), Dana Rohrabacher (CA-48), Mark Sanford (SC-01), and Roger Williams (TX-25).

Here are the 42 Democrats:

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Editor. Bibliophile. Gadfly. Environmentalist. Super-volunteer for progressive campaigns. Boston by way of Baltimore, London, NYC, DC, and Philly.

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