Federal Legislation – Congress Addresses Opioid Epidemic

Darryl Nirenberg
Eva Rigamonti
Cameron O’Brien
Legislative Assistant
Steptoe & Johnson LLP

PORAC Submits Testimony to House, Senate Committee Hearings on Opioid Abuse

Congress continues to examine the epidemic of opioid abuse that is plaguing communities across the country. Addressing this crisis is a top priority for PORAC, as recent estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that drug overdose deaths in 2016 most likely exceeded 64,000 — an increase of more than 22% over the 2015 total. According to the state’s Department of Public Health, 1,925 opioid overdose deaths occurred last year in California alone — an average of more than five deaths every single day.

On October 5, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held a hearing titled “Examining the Federal Response to the Opioid Crisis.” Similarly, the House Energy and Commerce Committee conducted a “member day” hearing on the epidemic, during which lawmakers provided testimony on the status of the crisis in their respective districts.

The Senate hearing focused on efforts and programming within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to prevent opioid abuse, such as through ensuring safe prescribing practices, thwarting prescription fraud and developing alternative pain management treatments. PORAC was proud to share its perspective on this crisis with the Committee through written testimony, and highlighted the health risks that opioid abuse poses to addicts and to first responders as well.

PORAC explained to lawmakers that law enforcement has been encountering more and more drugs that contain fentanyl, which can be 50 times more potent than heroin. Because of fentanyl’s potency — and because law enforcement must respond to drug overdoses with increasing regularity — it represents an unusual health hazard for police and public safety personnel. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has warned law enforcement about the dangers of exposure to the substance, trace amounts of which can be deadly when ingested orally, inhaled through the mouth or nose, or absorbed through the skin or eyes. PORAC’s testimony endeavored to inform the committee about this growing threat and encourage its members to support federal efforts to mitigate this risk to law enforcement. 

Additionally, PORAC recommended that policymakers work to seal our borders to prevent the entry of illegal drugs from abroad; enact laws to ensure that opioid pharmaceuticals are being prescribed in a safe manner; fully fund community policing efforts and social services programs; and carefully review and consider the recommendations of the newly formed President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis.

DOJ Announces Funding to Combat Opioid Epidemic, Human Trafficking

The Department of Justice (DOJ) recently announced awards totaling $59 million to help combat the opioid epidemic and another $47 million to fight human trafficking and assist its victims. PORAC has advocated for this critical funding and is encouraged that policymakers recognize its importance.

Opioid Funding: Within the funding for combating opioid abuse, $24 million will be awarded to 50 cities, counties and public health departments to provide financial and technical assistance for the development of comprehensive diversion programs and alternatives to incarceration for those impacted by opioid addiction. Another $3 million has been awarded to the National Institute of Justice for research and evaluation on drugs and crime, with a particular emphasis on heroin, opioids and synthetic drugs.

The DOJ is also working to address opioid abuse through the court system, and has awarded grants totaling more than $22 million to 53 jurisdictions to support the implementation and enhancement of adult drug courts and Veterans Treatment Courts.

A number of entities in California are set to receive funding for enhancing their existing drug and veterans court systems, including the San Francisco Superior Court ($395,348), Solano County Superior Court ($398,342), the Ninth Circuit Court ($399,994), the Monterey County Probation Department ($400,000) and the Orange County Superior Court ($246,465). Additionally, DOJ has awarded $9.5 million to help jurisdictions build effective family drug treatment courts and juvenile drug treatment courts, of which $1.45 million was granted to the Center for Children and Family Futures in Lakewood, California.

Human Trafficking Funding: Within the funding for fighting human trafficking, more than $10 million is slated for comprehensive and specialized services for trafficking victims, including housing programs, economic empowerment services and legal assistance. In California, the Coalition to Abolish Slavery Trafficking (Los Angeles County) will receive $750,000 of this funding; Bay Area Legal Aid (Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo and San Francisco counties) will receive $600,000; and North County Lifeline (San Diego) will receive $600,000. Furthermore, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services has been awarded nearly $1.5 million to develop strategies to identify and assist child victims of trafficking, while another $1.5 million will go to a joint effort between the Anaheim Police Department and Community Service Programs (Orange County) to implement victim-centered support services.

Congress Passes Pair of PORAC-Supported Bills

In early October, Congress passed a pair of PORAC-supported bills and sent them to President Trump for his signature.

On October 3, the Senate approved by voice vote the House-passed Strengthening State and Local Cyber Crime Fighting Act of 2017 (H.R. 1616). The bill would reauthorize the National Computer Forensics Institute within the U.S. Secret Service, the core functions of which include educating officers on current cyber and electronic crimes, training officers to conduct investigations of such crimes and providing officers with computer equipment necessary to conduct cybercrime investigations.

Also on October 3, the House of Representatives approved by voice vote the Senate-passed Elder Abuse Prevention and Prosecution Act (S. 178). The bill directs the DOJ to provide information, training and technical assistance to help states and local governments investigate, prosecute, prevent and mitigate the impact of elder abuse, exploitation and neglect. It also requires the DOJ to report to Congress on its outreach to state and local law enforcement agencies on the process for collaborating with the federal government to investigate and prosecute interstate and international elder financial exploitation cases.

At the time this issue went to print, both H.R. 1616 and S. 178 were awaiting President Trump’s signature to become law.

Second Annual Coffee With a Cop Day

On October 4, law enforcement agencies across the country participated in the second annual National Coffee with a Cop Day facilitated with the support of the DOJ’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office. Coffee with a Cop is a movement designed to help break down the barriers in communities between residents and officers that can make it difficult to properly combat crime and preserve public safety. The premise of these events is simple: Officers invite their fellow community members to join them for a cup of coffee and a conversation.

The first Coffee with a Cop event was organized in 2011 by the Hawthorne (California) Police Department as a way to help officers interact more successfully with the citizens they serve. More than five years and countless events later, over 2,000 U.S. law enforcement agencies now participate in the movement, which has expanded to Canada, Europe and Australia.