WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. lawmaker who was President Donald Trump’s pick for drug czar withdrew on Tuesday after reports he spearheaded a bill that hurt the government’s ability to crack down on opioid makers flooding the market with the addictive painkillers.
Trump had pegged Representative Tom Marino, a Republican from Pennsylvania, to lead the Office of National Drug Control Policy, as the administration faces an epidemic of opioid overdoses that is killing tens of thousands of Americans annually. The position required Senate confirmation.
Trump wrote on Twitter: “Rep. Tom Marino has informed me that he is withdrawing his name from consideration as drug czar. Tom is a fine man and a great Congressman!”
Marino worked as a federal prosecutor under Republican former President George W. Bush, was elected to the House of Representatives in 2010 and served on Trump’s transition team after the Republican president was elected last November.
Marino said in a statement he had decided to “remove the distraction my nomination has created to the utterly vital mission of this premier agency.”
He defended his role in helping pass the bill that was criticized for weakening attempts to rein in opioid use. He said the legislation would help create “a balanced solution for ensuring those who genuinely needed access to certain medications were able to do so, while also empowering the Drug Enforcement Agency to enforce the law and prevent the sale and abuse of prescription drugs.”
Marino said he had been the target of “unfair reporting” and false allegations by a former DEA employee, who he did not name.
The Washington Post and the CBS programme “60 Minutes” published an investigation on Sunday that showed Marino had worked to weaken federal efforts to slow the flow of opioid drugs.
The legislation championed by Marino, which was passed by Congress and signed into law last year by Democratic President Barack Obama, was the product of a drug industry quest to weaken the DEA’s authority to stem the flow of painkillers to the black market, according to the reports.
The law made it almost impossible for the DEA to freeze suspicious narcotics shipments, according to government documents cited by the Post.
Trump has been criticized for his response to the opioid epidemic. He has yet to declare it a national emergency as he pledged to do on Aug. 10 following a recommendation by a presidential commission.
Asked about that at a news conference on Monday, Trump said he would make the declaration next week. Such a move would boost funding for various forms of treatment and give the government more flexibility in taking steps to expedite action.
Nine months into his presidency, Trump has not named a chief for the Drug Enforcement Administration, currently headed by an acting administrator.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, opioids were responsible for more than 33,000 U.S. deaths in 2015, the latest year for which data is available. Estimates show the death rate has continued rising.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer called Marino’s withdrawal “the right decision,” but added that “the fact that he was nominated in the first place is further evidence that when it comes to the opioid crisis, the Trump administration talks the talk, but refuses to walk the walk.”
No. 2 U.S. Justice Department official Rod Rosenstein, asked about the Marino-backed law during a news conference announcing indictments against accused Chinese fentanyl traffickers, said the Trump administration would review the law.
Rosenstein said he was “not prepared to answer” whether the administration would ask Congress to repeal it.
“We are going to look into these issues ... about what tools DEA has available to it. And if we conclude they don’t have the appropriate tools, then we will seek more tools,” Rosenstein said.
The Justice Department announced the indictments of two major Chinese drug traffickers on charges of illegally making and selling fentanyl, a highly addictive synthetic opioid painkiller, over the internet to Americans.
The department said it charged Xiaobing Yan, 40, and Jian Zhang, 38, with conspiring to distribute large quantities of fentanyl and chemically similar drugs. It said Zhang’s actions led to four deaths.
Trump’s opioid commission, headed by Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, cited government data showing that since 1999 U.S. opioid overdoses have quadrupled, adding that nearly two-thirds of U.S. drug overdoses were linked to opioids such as heroin and the powerful painkillers Percocet, OxyContin and fentanyl.
Reporting by Makini Brice and Sarah N. Lynch; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by David Gregorio and Andrew Hay