WASHINGTON – Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and law enforcement officials across the state Wednesday raised concerns that a bureaucratic shift proposed by the Trump administration could undermine efforts to fight the opioid epidemic.
President Trump's proposed fiscal 2019 budget would move the federal High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program away from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and over to the Justice Department.
To Schumer as well as to several top law enforcement officers – including Byron Lockwood, the newly appointed police commissioner in Buffalo – that move could disrupt a program that they see as critical to their battle against opioids.
"The proposal in the administration’s budget to shuffle the deck and bury the HIDTA office within the bowels of the Department of Justice, outside the direct purview of the White House, would be akin to putting New York’s law enforcement on hold when they make a call to the feds for real-time help,” said Schumer, a New York Democrat.
Lockwood agreed that moving the program amid a drug epidemic could prove disruptive.
"We work closely with our federal, state, local and tribal drug task forces every day to reverse the damaging effects that opioids and other drugs have had on our community, and we strongly believe that any interruption in funding could jeopardize vital intelligence-sharing and training initiatives, as well as life-saving resources, including drug-treatment initiatives such as our Narcan program," Lockwood said.
But John Czwartacki, communications director at the Office of Management and Budget, indicated the Trump administration thinks the High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program is in need of a shakeup.
"Apparently, Senator Schumer believes our current drug control system 'ain’t broke' and doesn’t want to 'fix it'," Czwartacki said. "As an opioid epidemic rages across the country – festering for more than a decade – a senior Democrat leader believes our system is 'working in its current form'.”
The program offers federal funding to localities to bolster their law-enforcement efforts while helping them coordinate among the various local, state and federal agencies involved in combating drug trafficking and abuse.
In recent years, nearly $16 million in federal funding has gone to federally designated high-intensity drug trafficking areas in upstate New York. Erie, Niagara and Chautauqua counties are among those where law enforcement agencies have shared that funding.
And the Buffalo Drug Enforcement Task Force – which has received some of that federal funding – has been involved in some of the area's biggest drug cases, including the arrests of Dr. Eugene Gosy of Clarence and "Doctor Feel Good": Dr. Pravin Mehta of Niagara Falls.
Local agencies coordinate their efforts through the New York/New Jersey High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program. And the head of that effort also criticized the proposal to move the entire federal anti-drug operation out of the White House.
“In the middle of this huge epidemic, is now the time to start rearranging the deck chairs?" asked Chauncey Parker, director of the New York/New Jersey HIDTA.
The staff at the White House anti-drug office "are the experts and the professionals on this issue, and they’re the best ones from a holistic standpoint to be able to take a look at all of this,” Parker added.