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Congress, Big Pharma, and the Opioid Crisis

Venn Crawford

The Washington Post and “60 Minutes” released a report this weekend revealing how Congress and pharmaceutical companies deliberately allowed the opioid crisis in America to worsen by passing a law that crippled the Drug Enforcement Administration’s ability to combat the epidemic. The opioid epidemic itself has resulted in over 200,000 deaths in the past two decades, a number which continues to increase.

The effort succeeded in April 2016 when Congress passed the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act, which the DEA had fought for years. The law makes it much more difficult for the DEA to freeze suspicious drug shipments by making the criteria for such actions more stringent. The effect is immediately visible – the DEA has issued only six suspension orders this year, compared to 65 in 2011.

The DEA’s troubles began far before 2016, however. In 2013, Jim Geldhof, the Detroit DEA program manager, discovered that Miami-Luken, a medium-sized Ohio-based drug distributor, had shipped 11 million doses of oxycodone and hydrocodone to Mingo County, West Virginia, which has a population of 25,000. Of those, 258,000 were shipped to one pharmacy in Williamson, which has a population of 2,924. West Virginia has the highest opioid death rates in the nation. However, Geldhof’s attempts to suspend Miami-Luken’s shipments were unsuccessful as he was dismissed by the company and lawyers.

The movement of previous DEA officers to the private sector, where they provided pharmaceutical and drug distribution companies with intimate knowledge of the DEA’s weaknesses, helped to begin weakening the DEA’s power to fight the opioid epidemic. In 2014, the first iteration of the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act was proposed. Pharmaceutical lobbyists supported the bill, and Congress framed it as an effort to improve the relationship and cooperation between the drug industry and the DEA. In 2015, the bill passed the House with unanimous support. Those who had long fought the bill slowly retired, paving the way for the bill to be passed by the Senate with little resistance.

The bill itself allows companies to make efforts to solve problems on their own before the DEA is allowed to impose sanctions. While the previous DEA head, Rosenburg, has lauded the bill and the relationship between the DEA and the opioid industry, the sharp decline in suspension orders paints a more concerning picture of the bill’s effects.

The true nature of the bill is seen more clearly, however, when looking at those who birthed it. The pharmaceutical industry contributed $120,000 to the campaign of the House version of the bill’s cosponsor, Marsha Blackburn. Tom Marino, the bill’s primary advocate, received $100,000 from political action committees representing the opioid industry. The 23 lawmakers who sponsored the bill received over $1.5 million from these PACs. Marino’s chief of staff left to work as a lobbyist for the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. Marino himself was nominated to be the head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

President Trump called the epidemic a “national emergency” in August, but has still not filed the paperwork to declare a crisis formally, despite the rising death toll. The American public continues to wait for solutions to the epidemic, which is predicted to claim 500,000 lives in the next ten years.

by Venn Crawford

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