At Height Of Opioid Crisis, Pharma Lobbyists Worked Congress To Keep It Going (Video)

In her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Naomi Klein argues that countries like the United States will never have effective climate policies as long as there are legislators profiting from fossil fuel companies’ deep pockets.

The same can be argued about the so-called war on drugs at a time when opioids are wiping out hundreds of thousands of lives a year.

A recent report in the Washington Post, in conjunction with 60 Minutes, uncovers how pharmaceutical companies work congressional power levers to hold the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) hostage pushing corporate-friendly legislation.

According to the report, at the height of the deadliest drug epidemic in our history, Congress agreed behind the scenes through unanimous consent to pass more laws amenable to drug manufacturers that pour millions of dollars into election campaigns.

The biggest proponents of looser restrictions were Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Rep. Tom Marino (R-Penn.), President Donald Trump’s drug czar nominee who withdrew his name from consideration after the 60 Minutes/WaPo report.

The report’s co-author, Washington Post‘s health and medicine reporter Lenny Bernstein, states the bill was about nothing but money. The bill unanimously passed Congress because “legitimate painkiller users were not getting their drugs in an efficient manner.”

During a conversation on CBS This Morning, Bernstein said:

“There’s nothing in the law that actually changes that at all. The evidence for that was actually sort of anecdotal. Whereas the evidence for the fact that these pills were ending up in the hands of dealers and users was quite substantial.”  

Joe Rannazzisi, former head of the DEA’s Office of Diversion Control, the division charged with regulating and investigating the pharmaceutical industry, blew the whistle on how Congress worked in tandem with lobbyists and pharmaceutical companies like Purdue Pharma and Johnson & Johnson to ship drugs to “pill mills“–pain clinics with dubious pharmacists and doctors who write fraudulent prescriptions–virtually unchecked.

He told 60 Minutes:

“This is an industry that’s out of control. What they want to do, is do what they want to do, and not worry about what the law is. And if they don’t follow the law in drug supply, people die. That’s just it. People die.” 

The three largest distributors that control around 85 or 90 percent of the drugs introduced to the public are Cardinal Health, McKesson, and AmerisourceBergen, according to Rannazzisi.

He said:

“This is an industry that allowed millions and millions of drugs to go into bad pharmacies and doctors’ offices, that distributed them out to people who had no legitimate need for those drugs.”

Rannazzisi asserts drug manufacturers knew they were killing people.

About the proliferation, Rannazzisi said:

“Pain clinics overnight popping-up – off an entrance ramp, or an exit ramp on an interstate. And all of a sudden there’s a pain clinic there…It was my opinion that this made the whole crack epidemic look like nothing.”

The investigation uncovered a pill mill in West Virginia and two in Sanford, Florida that allowed millions of pills out onto the streets.

Lenny Bernstein said:

“The impact that one single pharmacy can have is enormous. The underground network gets to know where these pharmacies are, and people come from far and wide and they get those pills. If you have a rogue doctor or a rogue pharmacist, the impact is enormous.”

The scourge is horrible enough, but with lobbyist money, Congress is complicit in it.

Matt Murphy, Rannazzisi’s lieutenant, became a consultant for the drug industry after a nearly 30-year career with the DEA.

He commented:

“My theory is that the industry through lobbying groups donated — a certain amount of money to politicians to get a law passed that favored the industry. And also maybe using those political ties to have Joe [Rannazzisi] removed…Pressure was put on for him to be moved out. I’m pretty confident of that. There was no reason to take the guy who was the most qualified person in DEA to run the Office of Diversion Control out of the Office of Diversion Control.”

The DEA eventually signed off on the final version of the “Marino bill” after pressure from Congress and industry lobbyists. Despite a senior DEA representative’s efforts to stop it, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) presented the bill to the floor in March 2016, where it passed with no objections or recorded votes.

A week later, former President Barack Obama signed the bill into law without ceremony or the usual photo-op.

The next day, Rep. Marino issued a press release claiming credit. His Chief of Staff, Bill Tighe, started working as a lobbyist for the National Association of Chain Drug Stores seven months later.

According to federal filings, major drug distributors, chain stores, and pharmaceutical manufacturers pumped $102 million lobbying Congress on the Marino bill and other legislation.

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Ted Millar is writer and teacher. His work has been featured in myriad literary journals, including Better Than Starbucks, The Broke Bohemian, Straight Forward Poetry, Caesura, Circle Show, Cactus Heart, Third Wednesday, and The Voices Project. He is also a contributor to Op-Ed News, Liberal Nation Rising, and Medium.