Durbin Questions Trump Administration On Its New War On Drugs

Senator presses against the Administration’s proposed one-size-fits-all mandatory minimum penalties for fentanyl traffickers

Calls for greater oversight of pharmaceutical industry and focus on public health prevention and treatment

WASHINGTON—U.S. Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) today questioned Kemp Chester, Associate Director of the National Heroin Coordination Group in the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), and Christina Nolan, U.S. Attorney for the District of Vermont, at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism entitled “Defeating Fentanyl: Addressing the Deadliest Drugs Fueling the Opioid Crisis.”  The hearing addressed the opioid epidemic and the Trump Administration’s push to increase criminal penalties for fentanyl traffickers.  On March 20, 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo instructing prosecutors to pursue capital punishment for drug-related crimes where the death penalty is authorized under current law.

“In 1986, we were faced with a drug crisis in America.  There was the arrival of a new narcotic.  It was called crack-cocaine.  We created new mandatory minimums for crack-cocaine versus powder cocaine to one hundred to one,” Durbin said.  “By really getting tough on – I mean we were all hard on crime when it came to crack-cocaine and I voted for it – the use of illegal drugs after that increased.  The availability of heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine increased.  And recidivism rates for drug offenders did not decline.  There was something missing in our calculation about how to end that drug problem – something dramatic that was missing.  Now we have a new drug problem and it is real, and you know it is real.  I’ve been all over the state of Illinois – there is no county too rural or small, there’s no suburb too wealthy to avoid the opioid epidemic.  And with fentanyl laced in, it is deadly, absolutely deadly.”

Durbin continued, “So now we are being asked to dramatically increase the criminal penalties for fentanyl.  Let’s do this in a smart manner and let’s do it in a thoughtful way.  Let’s learn from what we’ve done in the past that didn’t work.  And when we tried to sentence our way out of a drug crisis in 1986 it failed.  We’ve got to be better this time.”  

Video of Durbin’s remarks in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing is available here.

Audio of Durbin’s remarks in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing is available here.

The U.S. federal prison population has grown by over 700 percent since 1980, and federal prison spending has climbed nearly 600 percent.  Federal prisons remain at least 23 to 26 percent over capacity and consume one quarter of the Justice Department’s discretionary budget.

Durbin has introduced several pieces of legislation to expand treatment for opioid and substance addiction and increase access to drug prevention programs that have been proven to save lives, as well as legislation that seeks to prevent addiction before it starts by curbing the volume of addictive opioid painkillers on the market.  

Durbin is also among a group of bipartisan senators who reintroduced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 to recalibrate prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, target violent and career criminals, and save taxpayer dollars.  The legislation permits more judicial discretion at sentencing for offenders with minimal criminal histories and helps inmates successfully reenter society, while tightening penalties for violent criminals and preserving key prosecutorial tools for law enforcement.  In February 2018, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 16-5 to advance this comprehensive legislation.

Most recently, Durbin has been pushing the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to reduce the number of opioid pills allowed to be manufactured and sold in the United States.  After years of dramatic increases to the volume of opioids allowed to come to the market, the DEA lowered quotas by a combined total of 41 percent over the past two years, but the quotas are still high enough to flood the market with 14 billion pills per year – enough for every American adult to have a one-month prescription.