President Donald Trump’s plan to fight the opioid epidemic will call for the death penalty in some cases, White House officials said Sunday, scaling back the administration’s plan to punish drug dealers.
“The Department of Justice will seek the death penalty against drug traffickers when appropriate under current law,” said Andrew Bremberg, the White House’s director of the Domestic Policy Council. White House officials referred follow-up questions to DOJ.
An earlier version of the plan, obtained by POLITICO last week, would have called for the death penalty in some cases involving drug dealers, too.
Trump will announce his opioid plan on his visit to New Hampshire on Monday. POLITICO first reported on Thursday that the White House was finalizing its opioid plan, which includes a mix of administration actions and initiatives that would require new funds or laws from Congress.
There were more than 64,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016, mostly involving opioids, according to the most recent federal mortality data. The CDC this month reported that emergency rooms recorded a 30 percent spike in opioid overdoses last summer, indicating that the devastating crisis is worsening.
The administration says its plan will reduce opioid prescriptions by one-third within three years and that the initiative will fulfill Trump's campaign promise to "stop opioid abuse."
The plan involves three major components, said White House counselor Kellyanne Conway: education and prevention; law enforcement and interdiction; and treatment and recovery efforts.
“The opioid crisis is viewed by us at the White House as a nonpartisan problem searching for bipartisan solutions,” Conway said.
However, the White House did take a shot at the Obama administration for its role in allowing illicit drugs to spread, arguing that it insufficiently prosecuted traffickers. “The prior administration did not prioritize enforcing the laws related to drugs. I think that’s been directly attributable to the rise and increase of fentanyl and the resulting overdose deaths,” a senior White House official said.
The Trump administration will call on Congress to make it easier to invoke the mandatory minimum sentence for drug traffickers who knowingly distribute illegal opioids that can be lethal, like fentanyl.
Multiple congressional committees also are preparing their own responses to the opioid epidemic, with the House Energy and Commerce Committee slated to review 25 bills this week. That’s raised questions about whether the Trump administration and congressional lawmakers are coordinating their work, with lawmakers occasionally scheduling competing announcements.
“We [have] been talking to Congress about various bills and their upcoming hearings,” a White House official told POLITICO. “As they move from the hearing to the markup stage, we will get even more involved.”
The White House is also backing new health ideas, such as calling for 75 percent of opioid prescriptions reimbursed by government health programs like Medicare and Medicaid to be issued by using “best practices” within three years. That would be scaled up to 95 percent of prescriptions in five years. A White House official said that the goal would be to use guidelines identified by the CDC as best practices.
It also will call on Congress to formally repeal a rule barring Medicaid payments to residential treatment for opioid addiction at large facilities, which could cost tens of billions of dollars. The Trump administration also will encourage states to adopt a prescription drug monitoring database that health care providers can access nationwide to flag patients seeking out numerous opioid prescriptions.