On Senate Floor, Portman Discusses the Worsening Addiction Epidemic in the United States
WASHINGTON, DC – Today, Senator Portman came to the Senate floor to discuss the need to ensure we focus on the worsening addiction crisis in the United States. After making substantial gains in combatting addiction, the COVID-19 pandemic brought about a new wave of addiction in this country. In July, the CDC released preliminary data showing that more than 93,331 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2020, a record high. A major contributing factor to the increase in drug overdose deaths is the extraordinary amounts of fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances that have been flooding over our borders.
Portman highlighted several legislative initiatives he has introduced this Congress to address the addiction epidemic, including the ambitious Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) 3.0 legislation that builds on the successes of his earlier CARA and CARA 2.0 bills. CARA 3.0 makes unprecedented investments in three important areas: research and education, treatment and recovery, and criminal justice reform. When added with existing CARA programs that are authorized through 2023, the federal government will be investing well over $1 billion per year to address the addiction crisis.
A transcript of his remarks can be found below and a video can be found here.
“The other focus that I had tonight was on our opioid, and more broadly, drug addiction crisis we face in this country. And unfortunately at a time with the pandemic causing huge health care problems, that has distracted a lot of our attention, understandably. But underneath that pandemic, there has been this epidemic that has been growing, and that's again this addiction issue. Back in 2018, we saw a reduction in addiction and specifically in the way it's typically measured, which is the number of overdose deaths that occur in our states. It was great news. Twenty-two percent decrease in overdose deaths in my home state of Ohio after decades of increases every single year. Twenty-two percent reduction in one year.
“2019 was also a good year where we saw significant success in getting people into treatment, getting people into recovery, reducing the use of drugs through prevention, all the things that we had been wanting to do. So much of that came from work that was done in this chamber because we did enact new legislation and provided billions of more dollars for prevention, for treatment, for recovery. And we had a lot of great activity going on at the state level, at our local levels as well building on that. We had more narcan being provided to our communities, which reverses the effects of an overdose. We had very good success in getting more people, not just into treatment, but into longer-term recovery where there is a greater chance of them succeeding and not relapsing. We did that through some legislation called the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, bipartisan legislation passed here in this chamber. Senator Whitehouse joined with me on that as the coauthors.
“And we also passed additional legislation to give more money directly to the states. And we found that we were again making progress. And then the pandemic hit. Unfortunately we now know from the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control, the CDC, that under the cover of this pandemic, the drug epidemic has not only not gone away, it's actually gotten much worse. Overdose deaths rose by nearly 30 percent between March, 2020, and March, 2021, the latest year for which we have data. Thirty percent increase in overdose deaths. This is very discouraging and heartbreaking, really, because that means much more devastation for our communities, families being broken apart, people not being able to achieve their God-given ability in life. Thousands more being lost.
“Ninety-six thousand seven hundred and seventy-nine more individuals, moms and dads, sons and daughters, friends and loved ones, lost their lives to overdose deaths during that year-long period, the most recent year that we have data for. It's the worst year we have had in the history of our country in terms of overdose deaths. Again, we have been rightfully focused on COVID-19, but particularly as the pandemic, the COVID pandemic is beginning to get better, the Delta variant finally beginning to affect our communities less, we have got to refocus ourselves on this addiction issue. If we don't do it, we're going to continue to see this tragic epidemic take away more lives. In 47 states and in the District of Columbia, the overdose rate went up during this last year, including a 26 percent increase in my home state of Ohio. In some states, by the way, the increase was as high as 85 percent. And I know the members of the Senate who represent those states are well aware of that and would join me in saying we have got to figure out a way. We have got to figure out a way.
“So what is the way forward? Well, part of it is getting back to what we know works. The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act and a bill called the 21st Century CURES Act, both signed into law in 2016, again, provided billions of new dollars for prevention, for treatment, for longer-term recovery, for narcan to help our first responders, and that worked and we made progress. So let's get back to that and redouble our efforts there. But we need to do more. We have new legislation we have introduced we think will do that. It's called the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act 3.0. We have already done the first bill and 2.0. Now we're at 3.0. It provides additional help. But it also has some new provisions in addition to funding those that we know work. That's extremely important as well.
“By the way, in these overdose deaths, we know that increasingly, it's synthetic opioids that is causing the deadly outcome. Fentanyl in particular, which is a synthetic form of heroin or other opioids that for a long time was being produced in China and then sent to our shores, and this poison was coming into our communities by our own U.S. Postal Service. So several years ago, we wrote legislation to deal with that called the STOP Act, and it's actually been quite effective to keep these drugs from coming in through the United States mail system. At that time our mail system didn't provide the kind of screening that private carriers did like FedEx or UPS or DHL, and so people who were traffickers chose to use our own postal service. Maddening. And they were doing it successfully.
“But it's kind of like whack-a-mole. Once we dealt with the STOP Act and dealt with the fentanyl coming in from China directly through the mail system, it started to show up where? Through our southern border. So today what the experts will tell you is that deadly fentanyl is coming in primarily through the U.S.-Mexico border. It is cheaper than ever. Very inexpensive. Sometimes it's produced in Mexico using precursors that come from China. It's being pressed into pills often. So people don't know that it's fentanyl. The pill may be Xanax, the pill may be Percocet. People think they are getting pain relief or anxiety relief when in fact they are getting fentanyl. The tragic result of that is, again, more and more overdose deaths.
“We had a roundtable discussion recently where we talked about the issue of the border and what was happening and the fact that so many people now are coming across the border, but also so much contraband including these drugs, and we had a witness whose name was Virginia Krieger. This was last week. Virginia told us her very tragic story about her daughter who thought she was taking a Percocet for pain because that's what the pill said. And she died of an overdose. And it was determined after the fact that, in fact, she had died of fentanyl because some evil scientist, perhaps in Mexico, had pressed these pills, made these pills, probably to try to get her addicted to this powerful drug fentanyl, and in fact she had ingested it, taken it, and it had caused her to overdose and die. Virginia, God bless her, has taken the death of her daughter, Tiffany Leigh Robinson, and channeled that grief into something positive.
“She is going out to the schools now and talking to young people. I see our pages are here tonight. And saying every drug, every pill that's not from a pharmacy, that you might find on the streets, is potentially deadly. It can kill you. So be cautious. Don't ever take a pill if you don't know that it's coming from a pharmacy, that it is what it says it is. My heart goes out to Virginia, her family, and all those who have lost loved ones to these deadly substances. We need to be sure that we reduce the supply of these drugs, and we also do much more in terms of the demand reduction.
“One way we can start to address the supply of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids is to make sure that they are illegal. That might seem obvious to you, but we have had a hard time here in this country dealing with this issue because – think about it – it's a synthetic form of an opioid, which can be changed by one of these evil scientists fairly easily, maybe just one molecule changes, and suddenly it's not on the list of controlled substances and not illegal. So in order to avoid this problem and be sure that people are properly prosecuted for illegal drugs, we are putting together legislation and trying to pass it that ensures that there is a permanent classification of these drugs as being illegal. The Drug Enforcement Administration back in 2018 used its authority to temporarily classify all fentanyl-related drugs, all of them as Schedule 1 substances, meaning illegal at the highest level, which allows law enforcement to aggressively intercept and destroy those substances. Unfortunately, that was only temporary, so that designation needs to be made permanent.
“We have successfully extended the temporary designation a few times here, but it's going to expire again at the end of January. So in just a couple of months, once again, we'll have an expiration of that designation. Until we make these fentanyl-related drugs permanently illegal, law enforcement will not have the certainty they need to go after the criminals moving these deadly substances and fewer lives will be lost. The legislation is called the FIGHT Fentanyl Act. It's bipartisan. I introduced it with Senator Manchin. Again, it fixes this problem by permanently classifying these drugs that are fentanyl-related as Schedule 1. It also gives our law enforcement the certainty they need to go after synthetic opioids in all forms and show we are committed to addressing the threat posed by this particularly dangerous class of drugs. So my hope is my colleagues on both sides of the aisle will work with us to get this done before the end of January. There is no reason we should do it at the last minute. We should provide that certainty and predictability.
“At the same time, I continue to believe that the most progress can be made on the demand side. So yes, we need to do a better job at the southern border. It's outrageous what is happening now. So many drugs are coming across at record levels. The apprehensions of fentanyl are at record levels. In fact, enough fentanyl has been apprehended this year alone to kill every man, woman, and child in America. That's how deadly the drug is. But ultimately, we have to deal with the demand for that drug in this country. As long as we have this insatiable demand, it's going to be difficult to stop it through the supply side or even making these drugs illegal. So that's why I think we need new legislation to build on the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, to build on what we have done previously, and this CARA 3.0 we’ve introduced with Senator Whitehouse can help on that.
“It does so by addressing three important areas: research and education, treatment and recovery, and criminal justice reform. First it will bolster our work to prevent drug abuse before it happens through funding the research and education. To me, it's time for a national awareness campaign. It would be money well spent, and I believe we could use the money that we would appropriate here to leverage a lot more private interests than this, get the private companies like the pharmaceutical companies to step forward and to help us in a true national drug awareness campaign. Second, research and development. We need to have better pain relief drugs in this country. We're still relying on things like Percocet, as I mentioned, and other opioids, prescription forms that we have been relying on for decades. It's time to actually move forward with the research and development of alternative pain treatments that don't lead to addiction, as opioids do. There has been some progress there but not nearly enough, and it needs more help.
“Second, in terms of treating substance abuse, our bill builds on what works by doubling down on proven evidence-based addiction treatment methods while expanding treatment options for groups particularly vulnerable to addiction, including young people, new and expecting moms, rural communities, communities of color. And it will make permanent the current expanded telehealth options for addiction treatment that would temporarily created in response to the social distancing required by COVID-19. This is an exciting opportunity. As it turns out, during COVID-19 when we had to rely more on telehealth, there was actually a lot of success in getting people into treatment. Now, it wasn't as good as having your recovery coach there with you and your perhaps other recovering addicts with you to give you the support you need, but for some people who couldn't travel because of the COVID-19 restrictions and now perhaps can't travel for other reasons, telehealth is something that was determined to be quite successful in many cases. So we should continue that. And we have to change laws to do that because it's about whether that would be reimbursed particularly under Medicaid and Medicare.
“CARA 3.0 will also bolster the recovery options for individuals working to put addiction behind them through funding to support recovery support networks. It will enable physicians to provide medication-assisted treatment like Methadone to a greater number of patients and change the law to allow those drugs to be prescribed via telehealth for greater ease of access. So part of the telehealth we're looking for is if you have a Medicaid-assisted treatment program, that you can use telehealth – in other words, over the internet – to be able to get your prescription. There needs to be safeguards in that. You need to be sure that at first time a prescription is given that there is a face-to-face contact and make sure that it's not being abused, but this can be quite helpful.
“Finally, CARA 3.0 reforms our criminal justice system to ensure that those struggling with addiction, including our veterans, are treated with fairness and compassion by the law, putting them on a path to recovery instead of a downward spiral of substance abuse. When someone comes out of one of our prisons or jails and comes out as an addict and there's not treatment provided, way too often that person relapses and begins to use again, and gets back into criminal activity and is right back in the criminal justice system.
“That doesn't help anybody. It certainly doesn't help the taxpayer because the cost is $30,000, $35,000, probably more, at the federal level to incarcerate someone. And when they get out, they're just creating more crimes, it's creating more crime in the community.
“So it's worth putting some emphasis on treatment while someone's in prison, if they are suffering from addiction, and certainly when they get out, getting them into treatment and recovery programs to get them back on their feet. And by the way, we need these people in our workforce right now. We've always needed them, but we particularly do now. So this is a win-win for our economy, certainly for the addict.
“CARA and CARA 2.0 have given states and local communities new resources and authorities to make a real difference in our States. CARA 3.0, this new bill renews, and strengthens those programs. And given the recent spike in addiction, provides a significant boost in funding as well. When added with existing CARA programs that are authorized through 2023, we would be investing over a billion dollars per year to address the epidemic, putting us on a path toward a brighter future, free from addiction. it's money well spent in my view, it's necessary. Again. It's going to help to bring our families back together, get people back to work, ensure that our communities are not being devastated by crime that's committed in relation to these drug issues.
“I believe these two bills, FIGHT Fentanyl Act we talked about and CARA 3.0 will make a difference in addressing this crisis of addiction our country now faces that has been made even worse during the time of the pandemic.
“A lot of our victims of this addiction crisis are suffering in silence. I urge my colleagues, let's act now. Let's bring this to the light. Let's allow more people to get into treatment, longer term recovery. Let's be sure that we are making fentanyl illegal in all of its forms. Let's without delay go to work, to once again do what we know works because we turn the tide on addiction. We began to turn it in 2018, 2019. Let's get back to that which will save lives and give so many more Americans the ability to achieve their God-given potential.”