Attorneys general across the country are claiming that a 2016 law is preventing the Drug Enforcement Agency from stopping the overprescribing of opioid painkillers. This week New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas signed on to a letter with 44 other AG’s calling on Congress to repeal the “Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act,” saying the law has handcuffed law enforcement from addressing the epidemic.
Attorney General Balderas spoke to KUNM about effort.
Balderas: Because these are controlled substances, they are already regulated. And so what the DEA had as a power is when they would determine that an area was being flooded by dangerous painkillers, they could at least suspend the flow of these painkillers while they conduct an investigation.
The industry of course pushed back, and they lobbied congress and they stripped away certain police powers that were intended to protect the public health and safety and welfare of Americans. This is appalling.
KUNM: Do we have any idea about what the consequence of that action in Congress was here in New Mexico?
Balderas: I believe it stripped away a vital tool that could have saved many lives. We are losing one New Mexican a day due to the opiate epidemic and the addiction crisis in New Mexico. We currently have counties where 80-90 percent of the entire population of that county has an opiate prescription. I’m at the mindset that that’s a dangerous level of substances floating around in a respective county. So the DEA at that point could have the power to at least suspend the flow while they conduct a reasonable investigation.
KUNM: If Congress were to repeal this law somewhere down the line, do you think the DEA would indeed step in in New Mexico and stop the flow of prescription opioids?
Balderas: I believe it would. We have very high levels of opiate prescriptions, and we’re doing everything we can under law as it is. But truth be told we need law enforcement on the front lines to be able to also limit the flow of drugs when they are legally flowing in and basically overrunning our community.
KUNM: How would you describe your larger strategy for addressing the opioid crisis as Attorney General?
Balderas: The first is that we’re trying to save as many lives as we can. We are conducting trainings throughout communities in New Mexico, we’re trying to leverage resources where we bring in all kinds of stakeholders—teachers, parents, law enforcement agencies—because we have to train about the dangers and the risks of prescription drugs.
But secondly, I’m also bringing aggressive litigation to try to set aside resources so we can build treatment beds, so we can have adequate law enforcement to protect our communities, and more importantly education dollars to do all we can. These drugs were misrepresented as to the dangers in New Mexico and I believe the companies have to do the right thing and invest in saving lives in New Mexico.
KUNM: President Trump recently declared a public health emergency over the opioid epidemic. Did that free up any tools for law enforcement to address this issue?
Balderas: I’m glad that the president declared a public health emergency to bring awareness. I’m very disappointed in the president that it didn’t free up any new resources, didn’t provide any new tools. We need resources on the ground immediately and it needs a collective effort to engage and to respond to the type of crisis situation we’re all facing.
And so for him to declare a health emergency without deploying the day-to-day resources was quite a disappointment.
KUNM's Public Health New Mexico project is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the McCune Charitable Foundation. Find more at www.publichealthnm.org.