Ocasio-Cortez Amendment Shifts Some of DEA’s Funding to Opioid Treatment, as House Democrats Push to Increase Agency’s Budget

House Democrats originally allocated $80 million more to the law enforcement agency than the Trump administration had even requested.

U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Democrat of New York) during the Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., U.S. to markup a resolution recommending that the House of Representatives find the Attorney General and the Secretary of Commerce in contempt of Congress on June 12, 2019. Credit: Stefani Reynolds / CNP | usage worldwide Photo by: Stefani Reynolds/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez during a Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on June 12, 2019. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/picture-alliance/dpa/AP

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has offered an amendment this week to cut $5 million in funding for the Drug Enforcement Administration and to instead reallocate it to treatment programs, according to the House Committee on Rules.

The measure would amend the House Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act to shift $5 million in funding away from enforcement and incarceration. That money would instead go to supplement the Support for Patients and Communities Act, a bipartisan bill designed to address the opioid crisis, which killed more than 70,000 people in 2017. Ocasio-Cortez originally sought to cut $30 million from the DEA, according to the Rules Committee draft, but decreased the amount to $5 million.

A spokesperson for Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment.

Sentencing reform and civil liberties groups seeking solutions to the opioid crisis and the cycle of addiction say reinvesting funds in treatment, as long as it is evidence-based, is more effective than funding enforcement agencies, which instead drives up the incarcerated population in the United States and punishes people when they need help.

Groups including the Drug Policy Alliance and the American Civil Liberties Union will send a letter on Wednesday to House Appropriations Committee Chair Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y.; Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee Chair Rep. José Serrano, D-N.Y.; and top-ranking Republican members Kay Granger of Texas and Robert Aderholt of Alabama, in support of the Ocasio-Cortez amendment. The letter, provided to The Intercept, implores members to approve the amendment and move away from funding “enforcement-only approaches to addressing drug abuse and the overdose epidemic” at levels above what the Trump administration requested.

House Democrats awarded the DEA $2.36 billion in the fiscal year 2020 bill for Commerce, Justice, and Science. “This amount represents an almost $90m increase on the FY19 bill that was enacted in February 2019,” the letter reads. “It is also an award of almost $80m above the President’s FY20 request. In other words, the House bill awards the DEA $80m more than the agency itself or the Trump Administration even requested.”

The DEA is “emblematic of how the drug war has been a devastating failure,” the letter continues. “The agency approaches drugs from a purely criminalization standpoint, under the misguided belief that the U.S. can reduce drug use through arrest and incarceration. Its approach is heavy-handed, ineffective, unscientific, and deeply damaging to communities in this country, particular communities of color who bear the negative impact of the drug war more than others do.”

The letter notes that while the House allocation for FY 2020 included a massive increase in DEA funding, it only included a $2 million increase for the Comprehensive Opioid Abuse Program, part of bipartisan legislation passed in 2016 that sought to address drug use and overdose fatalities without arresting or incarcerating people. The $5 million reallocation in the Ocasio-Cortez amendment would also supplement that program.

“We believe that our country needs to shift away from the enforcement and incarceration only approach to drugs that has wrought havoc on so many communities, and focus on public health approaches to the overdose crisis. We support this amendment because it would take us closer to achieving that goal,” the letter reads.

“In a world of limited resources, where the overdose crisis is one of the greatest tragedies of our time, the House of Representatives should not be over-funding arrest and incarceration at the expense of treatment and public health solutions to drugs,” the letter continues. “If we are ever to treat drugs as a health issue, not a criminal issue, then we should stop pouring so much funding into this agency.”

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