Big Pharma is fueling the opiod epidemic

But a new bill in the Senate would restore one of the DEA's primary tools in combating the wave of opiod-related tragedy in America.

Will Caron

The opioid crisis is now responsible for the loss of an estimated 200,000 lives in the United States, more than three times as many American lives lost in action during the Vietnam War. It has devastated families across the country, particularly in rural and under-served areas, all while making billions for the pharmaceutical industry.

One family, the Sacklers, have made around $35 billion off of one drug: OxyContin. Doctors were originally reluctant to prescribe opioid painkillers, chemical relatives of heroin, due to fears of addiction and overdose. But intentional and well-funded campaigns from pharmaceutical companies like the Sackler’s Purdue Pharma resulted in a massive uptick in prescriptions in the mid-‘90s, pushing the drugs on patients who did not need them and kicking off the opioid crisis of today.

The drug dealers of the opioid crisis don’t hang out on street corners or under power lines dangled with pairs of shoes; they don’t live in college dorms or operate out of the back of tattoo parlors or strip clubs. They wear suits and ties and lab coats. They line their own pockets with illicit sales or by deliberately looking the other way when pharmacies place huge orders. According to former Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents quoted in a recent blockbuster report by the Washington Post, drug distributors ignore red flags out of pure greed.

The drug industry worked with well-paid former DEA agents and well-compensated members of Congress to pass a little-noticed 2016 law that sabotaged the DEA’s anti-opioid efforts.

For years, one of the DEA’s best tools in combating prescription drug dealing was its ability to suspend the operations of distributors who were funneling suspiciously large shipments of painkillers. But a former DEA agent turned drug industry lobbyist turned drug distributor worked with industry lobbyists and friendly lawmakers to effectively rob the DEA of that power.

Rep. Tom Marino, whom Trump had named as his anti-drug czar, recently withdrew his name from consideration for the position. He was the primary sponsor of the lobbyist-written legislation to hamstring the DEA, all in pursuit of making drug enforcement less of a nuisance to deep-pocketed pharmaceutical companies.

Sen. Claire McCaskill has introduced legislation to undo the glaring 2016 mistake that hampered the DEA. With enough public outcry, it may be possible to overcome Big Pharma opposition that will surely pressure the GOP-controlled senate to vote against the bill.

Lives depend on Congress passing this bill. Big Pharma must be prevented from further fueling the devastating opioid epidemic. Repealing Rep. Marino’s law and giving the DEA back its power to suspend the operations of shady drug distributors is a good first step toward addressing this serious public health crisis.