The measure passed by a 99-1 vote Monday evening. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, voted against it.
It takes wide aim at the problem, including increasing scrutiny of arriving international mail that may include illegal drugs. It makes it easier for the National Institutes of Health to approve research on non-addictive painkillers and for pharmaceutical companies to conduct that research. The Food and Drug Administration would be allowed to require drug makers to package smaller quantities of drugs like opioids. And there would be new federal grants for treatment centers, training emergency workers and research on prevention methods.
Lawmakers’ focus on combating opioids comes amid alarming increases in drug overdose deaths, with the government estimating more than 72,000 of them last year. That figure has grown annually and is double the 36,000 who died in 2008.
Besides the sheer numbers, Congress has been drawn to the problem because of its broad impact on Republican, Democratic and swing states alike.
California, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania each had more than 4,000 people die from drug overdoses in 2016, while seven other states each lost more than 2,000 people to drugs, according to the most recent figures available. The states with the highest death rates per resident include West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Hampshire, along with the District of Columbia.
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, both Democrats, are among those facing competitive re-election races in November’s midterm elections. Republicans are trying to deflect a Democratic effort to capture Senate control.
Money for much of the federal spending the legislation envisions would have to be provided in separate spending bills.
The House approved its own drug legislation this summer. Congressional leaders hope the two chambers will produce compromise legislation and send it to President Donald Trump for his signature by year’s end.