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Big Pharma Money Enables Opioid Abuse, Profits

One problem that the FBI and Eliot Ness faced during Prohibition in bringing down the bootleggers was that the bootleggers had a lot of money and could pay law enforcement – including some in the FBI – to look the other way.

That also is a problem in the modern war on drugs, but it’s not confined to the illegal drugs. Prescription drugs, which are over-prescribed or diverted to the black market, also have money behind them, including from the pharmaceutical manufacturers. When gangsters or drug cartels throw their money around, it’s called bribery. When legitimate businesses do it, it’s called lobbying.

On Tuesday morning Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.) withdrew his nomination to be “drug czar” in the Trump administration following a 60 Minutes/The Washington Post report that a bill he helped push through Congress significantly weakened the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Ability to stop big pharmaceutical companies from shipping ridiculously large quantities of opioid painkillers to pharmacies in small communities.

The DEA believed such shipments – amounting to thousands of pills per resident, far more than they could ever legally need or use – were destined for diversion to the black market. Big Pharma didn’t like that, so they employed the legal technique of lobbying Congress to prevent the DEA from stopping such shipments, and hiring former DEA employees to help them game the system.

According to the Post, “the industry contributed at least $1.5 million to the 23 lawmakers who sponsored or co-sponsored four versions of the bill, including nearly $100,000 to Marino and $177,000 to [Utah Republican Sen. Orrin G.] Hatch. Overall, the drug industry spent $106 million lobbying Congress on the bill and other legislation between 2014 and 2016, according to lobbying reports.”

The Post also alleges that Congress, perhaps with Big Pharma lobbying and backing, drove DEA’s Joseph T. Rannazzisi – who had aggressively pursued such Big Pharma shipments – into retirement in 2015. He told 60 Minutes that there were “Vanloads of people from the Appalachia region driving down to Florida to get a prescription from a pain clinic,” possibly a pill mill, which they then took back home, possibly to sell. (Surely there were doctors and pharmacies closer to home!)

While that seems damning to at least these two Republican members of the Congress, the fact is that the Democrats either weren’t aware of what the bill would do – damning in itself – or approved of it. The Post said, “It sailed through Congress and was passed by unanimous consent, a parliamentary procedure reserved for bills considered to be noncontroversial.” Then it was signed by President Barack Obama, another Democrat.

This bill was passed despite the constant drum beat that we are in the midst of an opioid epidemic. No one – certainly not either political party or even independent Sen. Bernie Sanders – have clean hands on this bill. On Monday Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) introduced or plans to introduce a bill to repeal the law. In light of the publicity and Marino’s withdrawal, it will be interesting to see who supports the bill now, and if President Trump will sign it.