Senator introduces repeal of 2016 law after "60 Minutes"/Washington Post opioid epidemic report

Last Updated Oct 16, 2017 8:02 PM EDT

Sen. Joe Manchin on Monday introduced legislation that would repeal a 2016 law in response to a joint investigation by "60 Minutes" and The Washington Post that said Congress helped disarm the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Manchin said in a statement that the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act of 2016 is "harmful to our efforts" to fight the opioid epidemic, and "now it's time to make it right."

"The DEA is one of our first lines of defense against this all-consuming disease. West Virginia's families and communities deserve a DEA that will protect them, not pharmaceutical companies," Manchin said.

In the report, former DEA attorney Jonathan Novak criticized Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pennsylvania) and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) for introducing the Controlled Substances Act and its regulations. He said the law, unanimously passed by Congress and signed by President Obama, weakened the agency's ability to stop companies from distributing large quantities of opioids to suspect outlets, fueling abuse of the addictive drugs. 

Earlier Monday, Manchin said he sent a letter to the White House demanding that Marino's nomination be removed from consideration as the Trump administration's "drug czar," or leader of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Manchin said that he was "horrified" by the investigation and "cannot believe" the Obama administration didn't flag how harmful the bill would be for "our efforts to effectively fight the opioid epidemic." No member of the House or Senate, including Manchin, voted against its passage.

As for Marino, Manchin said, "During the biggest public health crisis since HIV/AIDS, we need someone leading the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy who believes we must protect our people, not the pharmaceutical industry."

In the report, Novak said the Controlled Substances Act divided the DEA's litigation office, and in 2013, he noticed a change in the way prosecutions of big distributors were handled. Cases his supervisors would have easily approved, now weren't good enough. He said his bosses started to bog down the system while demanding more evidence.

"We had been achieving incredible success in an almost unstoppable wave, and then suddenly it stopped," Novak said in the "60 Minutes" report. "These were not cases where it was black -- where it was grey... These were cases where the evidence was crystal clear that there was wrongdoing going on."

The DEA responded to the investigation Monday saying it it will continue to "use all the tools at our disposal to combat this epidemic." 

CBS News chief congressional correspondent Nancy Cordes spoke with Sen. Manchin, who said, "There's no way, with the epidemic we have, that the people of West Virginia or Pennsylvania are going to think you're looking out for them."

He told Cordes that he hopes his GOP colleagues from hard hit states -- like Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania -- will be with him on this. 

"This is not a partisan issue," he said. "This is a killer that does not take a side. It goes after both sides."