03/13/19 Rep. Elijah Cumming

This week on Century of Lies: a Congressional committee takes a critical look at White House drug policy. We'll hear from Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, as well as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). Plus, there was a debate recently on Irish national drug policy in that nation's parliament. We'll hear from two members of the Dáil Éireann, Mick Wallace and Gino Kenny.

Century of Lies
Wednesday, March 13, 2019
Rep. Elijah Cumming
Download: Audio icon COL031319.mp3




MARCH 13, 2019

DEAN BECKER: The failure of drug war is glaringly obvious to judges, cops, wardens, prosecutors, and millions more now calling for decriminalization, legalization, the end of prohibition. Let us investigate the Century Of Lies.

DOUG MCVAY: Hello, and welcome to Century of Lies. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

A House Committee held a hearing recently on White House drug policy and the administration’s response to the current overdose crisis. That will be in the second half of today’s show.

We’re going to start today with international news.

The Sixty-Second Session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs takes place in Vienna, Austria March 14 through the 22. There is a high-level ministerial segment on the first two days, the 14 and 15.

Some portions of the CND will be webcast live. Loyal listeners will recall that the CND does not maintain an archive of the video from these meetings. If you want to see or hear what happens at this UN meeting in Vienna then you either have to go there and get accreditation to attend, or watch the live webcast. You can access that webcast via the UNODC website, just go to UNODC.org and follow the links.

If you are watching the webcast, bear in mind that Vienna is in the Central European Time Zone, and that Daylight Savings Time has not yet kicked in in the European Union.

I’m a firm believer in transparency when it comes to policy making and law making, so as ever I’ll stay up and record the CND’s webcast. If there are any good bits I’ll bring them to you in upcoming editions of Century of Lies, so be sure to stay tuned.

The Irish Parliament has been discussing their national drug policy. The Dail Eireann, which is the lower house of the Oireachtas, which itself is the Irish Parliament, held a debate March 7 on a private member’s bill regarding local drug and alcohol task forces. We’re going to hear a portion of that debate.

First up, here’s Mick Wallace, a Deputy with Independents For Change.

DEPUTY MICK WALLACE: Thanks, Ceann Comhairle. I support this private member's motion, we could implement all the actions in the motion and things would certainly improve for a lot of people who are currently suffering under the present system.

But, many of the situations that give rise to drugs would still persist.

Criminalization of drugs is a travesty. It's above all a gift to the gangs, that have been handed by the state a tax-free business that's worth of two billion a year annually now.

The drugs they sell are not controlled by any quality checks and could have anything in them. When heroin is pushed onto the black market, it gets cut or contaminated with a long list of things that are never meant to enter the human bloodstream. Paracetamol, drain cleaner, sand, powdered milk, talcum powder, coffee, brick dust, vent dust, crushed -bleach crystal. Pretty much anything.

When you take contaminated heroin, you clog up your veins, damage one or another, moving around your body, destroying as you go. This is a cause of heroin addicts on the streets looking in such bad health, most of them just the heroin itself.

Action six in Joan's motion here is one of the more important in this respect, to end criminalization of possession for personal use. Four years ago now, the Joint Committee on Justice traveled to Portugal to see firsthand how their decriminalization system is working, and talked to those involved.

They were told by the Portuguese authorities that in the 15 years since decriminalization, drug consumption had not increased. Portugal did not become a destination for drug consumers. The number of crimes directly related to drug addiction decreased. Drug consumers are no longer looked upon or treated as criminals, not only the authorities but also by society and their families.

They put an end to thousands of criminal cases for drug consumption that cost time and money with absolutely no gain. It costs the Irish state billions policing this stuff at the moment. It is such a colossal waste of lives, of time, of work, of resources, of talent, and it doesn't even work.

Almost one in five people in this country take illegal drugs regularly. They grow their own, they buy it online, they buy it on the streets, taxicabs deliver to their homes, and by post. And no one has a clue whether or not they're consuming -- what they're consuming is safe.

We can seriously look at decriminalization and the possibility of directly regulating and taxing the sale of the products that are popular.

But we also need to look at the problems behind the trends in drug consumption. Why are hundreds of thousands of people now consuming anti-depressants in Ireland? So-called legal ones at that. Many people are leading more stressful lives. The cost of housing is soaring, wages have stagnated, and insecure, low-paid, low-skilled, less rewarding jobs have proliferated in the years since the crash.

The truth be told, many people have not recovered from the austerity implemented by the Labour-Fine Gail government.

Now, effectively, under the rightwing policies of successive governments, we have seen more people working longer for less and being more insecure in their jobs and their homes.

People are increasingly working longer in jobs that they find meaningless. In 2015 YouGov poll asked people, does your job make a meaningful contribution to the world? Thirty-seven percent said they didn't. And I'm sure the figures wouldn't be much different here.

Addressing these structural issues is essential to people's sense of wellbeing. We can't change the meaningfulness of jobs overnight, although a massive state-run enterprise to change Ireland to a dramatically greener country would provide the kind of employment people could take some pride in.

If people don't like their jobs, it's even worse that they spend longer at them and traveling to them, and have less time for family and friends, and the energy that one needs to feel good about life.

Drug consumption, whether legal or illegal substances, is massively connected to people looking out at the world and seeing a meaningful place for them in or not. And the issue for us in here is, our we shaping a society that breeds inclusion and security, or inequality and insecurity?

I think the least we should do is stop punishing those who have already been excluded and abused by the neoliberal economic and social policies of the last few decades. Thank you very much.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Mick Wallace, a member of the Dail Eireann, speaking in a debate in early March. Now, let’s hear from Gino Kenny, a Deputy with Solidarity – People Before Profit.

DEPUTY GINO KENNY: I'd like to welcome the discussion today, and congratulate Independence For Change for this discussion. And it's clear by the motion, and the statistics, that the consumption of drugs is increasing, not only nationally but globally. And the demand and use is greater than ever before, and obviously parallels between an upsurge in the economy in this country, in particular certain drugs that are being used.

From the outset, I have seen, on a personal basis, what drugs can do, and the devastation caused to an individual, a family, and the community.

But, I think we're going to have to have a really grown up argument in this country about why prohibition has failed, and why drugs are, you know, destroying communities on one hand, but leaving, for want of a better word, the drugs market to individuals that just care about profits and care about making as much money as possible.

And it throws up an argument about possibly, possibly looking at something completely different than what we're doing at the moment, because as in the motion, the consumption of drugs is increasing, so, the level of prohibition and the law against people is simply not working.

And this argument and debate will go on about in the national drug strategy, in relation to decriminalization. Decriminalization should have happened twenty years ago in this country. It should happen today. It's an ongoing kind of thing that should be done, and implemented, because putting people through the criminal justice system just doesn't work.

In fact, over forty percent of people that are incarcerated at the moment is for cannabis use. Now, I'll tell you, anybody that's listening to this would probably say, nobody should be in jail because of -- for cannabis use. Nobody. Nobody. And that drug should actually be legalized. Tomorrow.

I would just want to, just on another basis, about the pharmaceutical industry. Incredible statistic, and I had to kind of check it and recheck it. Last year, 32,000 people in the United States died of fentanyl overdose. That works out at one person every 20 minutes. It's absolutely incredible. Absolutely incredible. Seventy thousand people in the United States last year died of drug overdose. It is astonishing.

And these drugs are not illegal. They're legal. And they're in a package, they can be bought in the pharmacy, and that they're legal. [sic: most of the US overdose deaths related to fentantyl involved illegally manufactured and trafficked fentanyl.] Yet, pharmaceutical industries that make billions and billions of profits are allowed to go unchecked to cause this social damage that it does.

So, Minister, I think there has to be, you know, new kind of ways of looking at, you know, the catastrophe that drugs cause. And I think there has to be new ways of actually, in relation to decriminalization, I think that's very, very important.

I think drugs are going to be here, no matter what we say, people will use drugs, and no matter what people do and laws are in place, and I think it's important that a new approach is done, and regulation, decriminalization, and legalization of certain drugs, I think that debate needs to happen.

For some people, I don't -- it's going to be a difficult debate about legalization of certain drugs, but I think what has happened in Portugal, because if this is about saving people's lives, well, look at the Portuguese model. In 15 years, it has saved thousands of people, thousands of people, not only their lives, but their criminal justice system.

So this is the approach that we need to do. I do kind of note that, you know, the new strategy is looking at holistic ways of looking at drug addiction and drug use. And that's good. I think that's good. I think that's the way we should go. But decriminalization should happen today.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Gino Kenny. He’s a member of the Dail Eireann, which is the lower house of the Oireachtas, which itself is the Irish Parliament.

You’re listening to Century of Lies. I’m your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

Turning to domestic policy, the US House Committee on Oversight and Reform held a hearing March 7 on White House drug policy.

The Committee heard from James W. Carroll, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy; Mike McDaniel, director of the Houston High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area or HIDTA; and Triana McNeil, Acting Director of Strategic Issues for the General Accounting Office.

We’re going to hear portions of that hearing now. First, let’s hear the opening statement by the Committee Chair, Rep. Elijah Cummings, Democrat from Maryland.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS: Unfortunately, in contrast to our bipartisan urgency here in Congress, the White House office charged with leading our nation's efforts to combat the drug crisis has been missing in action as deaths continue to mount.

There's both a leadership vacuum and a competence vacuum at the head of ONDCP. And it pains me to even say that, but that's what I truly believe. Under federal law, one of the most basic, important jobs of ONDCP is to issue a national drug control strategy. However, in all of 2017, the Trump administration failed to meet this most basic statutory requirement.

In 2018, it was no different. No strategy was issued. Let that sink in for one moment. Seventy thousand people, every time I go to Ravens Stadium I look around and I think, that's a stadium that holds about 70,000 people. We lose that many people every year.

So for two years, more than half of President Trump's term, the White House had no national drug control strategy. Nothing. Nothing.

All while tens of thousands of people were dying. And the crisis was escalating every day.

You know, we will talk a lot about deaths. But we also need to talk about not only the dead, but the living, the people who are in the pipeline for death. The people are there in so much pain, they don't even know they're in pain.

So there was no sense of urgency. There was no sense of passion or purpose. Finally, this past January, the White House issued its long-awaited strategy, but when we got it, we could see immediately that it was no strategy at all. It was a 23 page pamphlet. It fails to meet even the most basic requirements in the law. It does.

I don't think anybody in this room, we legislators, and we were presented with this, would be satisfied if our staffers handed this to us. For example, it does not include detailed goals, or objectives to combat the drug crisis.

Today, the director of ONDCP, James Carroll, is finally, finally, appearing before the Committee. But it wasn't easy to get him here.

Last year, I repeatedly asked for Mister Carroll to testify before us as the acting director of ONDCP, in 2018, but he refused.

In January, shortly after I became chairman, I sent him a letter, inviting him to testify. But we delayed the hearing to accommodate his last-minute trip to China to examine issues related to opioids.

However, after we arranged for Director Carroll to appear today, he sent a letter saying that his attendance was quote "conditional" end of quote on his demand to testify on his own panel, without experts from GAO.

That was despite the fact that Chairman Meadows held a hearing in 2015 with the previous head of ONDCP and GAO, both on the same panel.

A few days after that, Mister Carroll sent another letter, asking for yet another delay. Mister Carroll, I must tell you that I at least wonder whether your priorities might be misplaced.

Think about all those days, and weeks, and months, spent avoiding and delaying today's hearing, trying to fight us with regard to your appearance. That was a waste of everybody's time. And one thing I'll say to this Committee, I want to clear: I'm not wasting your time. Life is short, and we want to be effective and efficient in what we do.

So all the while, you could have been focused on developing a real strategy, with concrete goals and measurable outcomes. You could have been focused on complying with the law that the Congress, that we passed.

You could have been focused on saving the lives of tens of thousands of your fellow Americans.

But you squandered that opportunity. Those days are lost forever. Just like the tens of thousands of our friends, our colleagues, our children, and our family members.

So more than 190 every single day have died. In fact, if today's hearing lasts for just two hours, fifteen people will die while we are sitting here explaining why you had no strategy for two years, and still don't really have one today.

Mister Carroll, we are going to ask you some tough questions today, because that is our job. And I pray that we will do this in a bipartisan way.

So when you respond, you have a choice to make. You can either buckle down and work with us, and so help me god, we want to work with you. We're happy to do that. It's up to you. All of the members of this Committee on both sides of the aisle want to work with you. We want you to be successful. It's important to us.

We are your authorizing Committee, and we want to collaborate to battle this crisis. We need to succeed. We have no choice.

DOUG MCVAY: That was US Representative Elijah Cummings, Chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, opening a hearing on White House drug policy that took place on March 7.

Now, let’s hear the brief testimony of one of the witnesses, Triana McNeil, Acting Director of Strategic Issues at the General Accounting Office.

TRIANA MCNEIL: I'm pleased to be here today to discuss GAO's preliminary findings on the 2019 national drug control strategy, and critical steps that ONDCP still needs to take to address deficiencies that we have previously identified.

These deficiencies need to be addressed so that ONDCP can coordinate and oversee the efforts of the dozen plus agencies combating illicit drug use. This is a crisis that resulted in 70,000 deaths in 2017 alone.

ONDCP is required to do a number of things based on the 2006 statute and the recent support act. ONDCP is required to develop the strategy and it is also required to work with agencies to develop an annual drug budget.

The 2006 statute on which this strategy is based calls on ONDCP to among other things identify annual, measurable objectives with specific targets, describe a performance measurement system to track progress, includes specific assessments to provide a baseline of illicit drug use and availability to enable ONDCP to see improvements throughout the year, and prepare five year estimates on program and budget priorities.

Based on our preliminary analysis, the strategy does not include many of these requirements. For example, it lacks annual measurable objectives and specific targets. It lists seven broad measures of performance but does not indicate how they would be measured or how they relate to long term or short term goals. Some of the seven measures don't even have timelines.

The strategy also is completely void of any performance measurement system. How can ONDCP track its own progress? How can ONDCP be held accountable without this critical system in place?

Moving forward, we will attempt to answer these questions and others, especially those centered around ONDCP's efforts to certify budgets without a national strategy, since this 2019 strategy is the first since 2016.

Chairman Cumming, Ranking Member Jordan, members of the Committee, this concludes my prepared statement. I would be happy to respond to any questions you may have.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Triana McNeil with the General Accounting Office. She was testifying at a hearing on White House drug policy held by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform on March 7.

Now let’s hear questioning by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat from New York.

REPRESENTATIVE ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Oftentimes it seems that consciously or unconsciously a narrative is reinforced that the opioid crisis impacts only one type of community, that it's limited to people of a certain income, geography, race, culture, et cetera, but the truth is that it impacts all of us.

In New York City, Bronx residents die of drug overdoses at a higher rate than any other borough. And, you know, for this reason I would like to submit to the record, and I seek unanimous consent to submit to the record this New York Times article that displays the urgent need for federal opioid response --

REPRESENTATIVE ELIJAH CUMMINGS: Without objection, so ordered.

REPRESENTATIVE ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: -- in urban communities. Thank you very much. I'm concerned that when it comes to truly prioritizing and solving the opioid crisis, the president is saying one thing but doing another.

Last month, President Trump declared a quote "national emergency" concerning the southern border of the United States under the National Emergencies Act, and you know, my colleagues wanted to talk of the southern border with relation to the opioid crisis, so let's talk about it.

Because even at the time that he declared this emergency, he said himself, quote, "I didn't need to do this." But he did, and at the time the president declared this emergency, the White House issued a statement that, quote, he would be using his legal authority to take executive action to secure additional resources, and he's transferred millions of dollars even from FEMA to ICE.

The statement said that the administration had identified funding that could be transferred from other agencies as well. This includes up to $2.5 billion that he's transferred from the Department of Defense, and up to $3.6 billion reallocated from military construction projects. So that's one national emergency he's identified.

But, about a year and a half ago, the president issued a declaration indicating that opioids also constitute a public health emergency. Director Carroll, to date, how much funding has the administration transferred from other agencies to address the opioid public health emergency?

JAMES CARROLL, JR.: If you're referring to the opioid emergency declared eighteen months or so ago, about, very little money was actually transferred over. I'm not sure of the exact amount, but it was not very much money.

REPRESENTATIVE ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Right. We're seeing here, I mean, there's evidence that almost no money was transferred from other agencies.

So we have two national emergencies, one declared on the southern border where the president transfers, and he is taking away millions of dollars from other agencies to address a wall, which doesn't even solve these issues, when we're seeing that it's focused on ports of entry, but second, when we actually --

JAMES CARROLL: May I address that, actually, just to make sure, I mean, I think that they were done with two different intents. The, when the opioid crisis was identified, it was to bring awareness, just like what you were talking about and what you've seen in your community, in your district, to make sure that people, parents, everyone understood the issue.

REPRESENTATIVE ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: So, we've got two emergencies, one is treated with an actual action, and the other is just to raise awareness.

But, I do think that despite the fact that I disagree with how, I mean, disagree is a mild term, but disagree with the president's course of action, I do think that we here in Congress have a responsibility as well. The public health emergency fund has only at most 57,000 dollars in it, and it has not been really funded Congressionally in a long time.

So I think that that's an area where we can accept some personal responsibility. But also it's hard to ignore the private sector's benefit from the opioid crisis. Drug makers have poured close to $2.5 billion into lobbying and funding members of Congress over the last decade.

Mister Carroll, do you believe that private sector lobbying by the pharmaceutical industry could be playing a role in the opioid crisis?

JAMES CARROLL, JR.: I haven't looked into the lobbying part of this at all. You did mention the public health, and I wanted to just mention something that CDC has done that I think has been very helpful. We've been working with the CDC and DEA to make sure that, just like if there were an outbreak of contagious disease, when there's an outbreak of overdoses in one cluster area, the HHS through the CDC is working on creating a hot team to deploy immediately to those areas, and through the public health funds, that's one of the things they're doing.

And so I just wanted to mention CDC, if there's an outbreak in your district.

REPRESENTATIVE ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: So, one last question. As specifically, perhaps Ms. McNeil or Mister Carroll, but Ms. McNeil, did the declaration of a public health emergency for opioids make any additional funding available to expand treatment for individuals who had overdosed, or to provide services to individuals who were in recovery?

TRIANA MCNEIL: I'd like to invite my colleague, Mary Denigan-Macauley, to answer that question.

MARY DENIGAN-MACAULEY: So, we did look at the public health emergency declaration that was issued in November 2017 and subsequent to that. You are correct that the public health emergency funds were not used and that there's 57,000 dollars currently in that.

REPRESENTATIVE ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Fifty-seven thousand dollars that we have as a government to address the public health emergency?

MARY DENIGAN-MACAULEY: That is correct. There are alternative funds that can be used, but in this case, they did not use this, and this emergency has never been used for opioids in the past.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez questioning Office of National Drug Control Policy Director James Carroll at a hearing on White House drug policy held by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform on March 7.

And that’s all the time we have this week. I want to thank you for joining us. You have been listening to Century of Lies. We're a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I’m your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

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We'll be back in a week with thirty more minutes of news and information about drug policy reform and the failed war on drugs. For now, for the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay saying so long. So long!

For the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay asking you to examine our policy of drug prohibition: the century of lies. Drug Truth Network programs archived at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy