Trump Administration Plans to Effectively Kill Office Fighting Opioid Epidemic

A leaked memo shows the Office of National Drug Control Policy budget being slashed by 95 percent

Trump, flanked by Chris Christie and Jeff Sessions, holds an opioid and drug abuse listening session at the White House in March. Credit: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is outraged that the Trump administration is planning to effectively kill the Office of National Drug Control Policy – the government arm that's been helping coordinate the national effort to combat the U.S. opioid and heroin epidemic. A leaked memo, first obtained by CBS, shows the director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney, is proposing cutting the drug office's budget by more than 95 percent, or $364 million.

"There are several things that are going on that don't make sense, when we have the biggest public health crisis this country has faced since the AIDS epidemic – we're losing more people to opioid overdose right now than we lost at the height of the AIDS epidemic," Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill tells Rolling Stone. "So it really should be all hands on deck, not, 'Let's figure out a way to minimize the federal involvement.'"

McCaskill, who was a prosecutor in Kansas City in the Nineties, has seen the office make an impact on the ground. She says she coordinated with officials in the Office of National Drug Control Policy for public-education campaigns and that the agency provided information on tactics being used in communities across the U.S. – helping coordinate a national response to problems facing local communities from coast to coast. The office also provided her vital information and resources on treatment and drug court programs.

"It had a big impact on what we were doing in terms of fighting methamphetamine, at the time, and some of the gang wars we had over crack cocaine. ... They were very helpful," McCaskill says. "I think it has been a resource for people around the country in the law enforcement community and in the health community – it kind of married the two."

That doesn't mean Congress shouldn't review and potentially revamp the drug office, McCaskill says – she just thinks doing away with it altogether is wrongheaded. "To me, we should be looking at what they're doing, maybe fine-tuning it, maybe making sure that it is relevant to the crisis we're facing today. But to basically completely [defund] it doesn't make any sense," she says.

It's not just Democrats who feel this way. The issue has been on Republican Sen. Rob Portman's radar for the past 23 years – his home town of Cincinnati has long faced serious drug abuse and drug-related crime problems, and he made combating drug abuse a priority as director of the Office of Management and Budget for two years under President George W. Bush. The proposal to basically scrap the drug office is coming from that same office now. 

"I'm a former budget director, and I understand it's a tough job to look at all the different competing priorities when you're trying to save taxpayer dollars – I get that," Portman said in an impassioned floor speech on the Senate floor this week. "But I also get that we don't want to take a program like this that's actually working, that has all these accountability measures in place to be sure that taxpayer dollars are being spent right, and to get rid of it at a time when we have this growing crisis in our country."

Portman says President Reagan made progress on combatting cocaine in the Eighties, and that gave lawmakers cover to cut back on some of those national programs in the following decade, which he says had negative ramifications as drug abuse and gang wars exploded. He says cutting back in the Nineties made sense, but that it backfired. He says this is different.

"I never expected that at a time when we would have a substantial increase in drug use, in crime, in overdoses, in deaths – which is what we've experienced here in this country over the past few years – that we would cut these programs. I just didn't imagine that. So I am concerned about it. We can't take our eye off the ball," Portman said.

The bipartisan outcry doesn't bode well for the Trump White House, which is proposing drastic cuts to federal programs ranging from the Health and Human Services department to Medicaid, which reports about 12 percent of its recipients struggle with substance abuse.

Just last month, Trump was dealt a massive blow to his agenda when a bipartisan group of lawmakers reached a deal to avert a government shutdown that didn't include any of his priorities. In fact, his biggest demand – that the funding bill include money for his proposed wall along the Mexican border – was explicitly barred in the legislation.

That caused Democrats to claim a win, which enraged Trump and caused him to lash out on Twitter and threaten a "good 'shutdown'" of the federal government if his priorities aren't funded this fall. But when it comes to his proposal to effectively end the Office of National Drug Control Policy, a bipartisan group of lawmakers argue they have the votes to kill the misguided proposal.

"This administration clearly has no idea about the scope of the heroin crisis across this country. They are waging a war on the funds that we use to try to combat the opioid epidemic, and it's hard for me to understand," Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy tells Rolling Stone. "You zero out money for the oversight of the drug epidemic, and you slash funding for the agencies that combat the epidemic – that's a recipe for this epidemic to explode."