Together, The Washington Post and “60 Minutes” have told the long, sordid story of Joseph Rannazzisi, the former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s division in charge of regulating the drug industry.
Rannazzisi says he was pushed out of the agency in 2015 for aggressively going after the companies responsible for flooding pharmacies all across the country with opioid medications – primarily the distributors McKesson, Cardinal Health, and AmerisourceBergen. They control over 80% of the distribution market in the US.
Rannazzisi, a lawyer, was helping to form a legal strategy that would hold companies accountable when they knowingly sent opioids to doctors and pharmacies that sold the drugs illegally. This force of white-collar drug dealers, more than anything else, is what sparked the crisis.
What Rannazzisi says happened to him reveals the ugliest truth about the opioid crisis at this moment: Help isn’t coming.
To neutralize him, Rannazzisi says, the industry lobbied Congress to craft legislation defanging the DEA, hired dozens of DEA and Justice Department lawyers to work against their old bosses, and used its allies to go after him.
Of course, this all comes down to money, and it goes beyond parties and administrations. What started under President Barack Obama is continuing in the age of President Donald Trump.
For example, the man Trump nominated to become his drug czar, Republican Rep. Tom Marino of Pennsylvania, is the same man who helped write the legislation that disempowered the DEA – 2016’s Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act – and who launched an investigation into Rannazzisi.
Now, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia is calling on the administration to rescind Marino’s nomination. To those unfamiliar, this might sound good, but this is just an illustration of “60 Minutes” and The Post’s reports’ point.
You see, though Manchin represents the state hit hardest by the crisis, he has done very little to cut it at its root. He has never moved against the big businesses that have profited from America’s addiction.
I wrote a column about this a few months ago. Manchin’s remedies for the crisis are pithy solutions and ideological dog whistles to the White House. He wants to educate people about the dangers of the drug, still complains about marijuana as a gateway, and called for a “one-penny fee on every milligram of opiates that are produced and sold in America” to be collected for treatment.
These are Band-Aids for a bullet wound.
We should also note that Manchin’s daughter, Heather Bresch, is the CEO of Mylan Pharmaceuticals, the company that has jacked up the price of the life-saving EpiPen and also happens to make an opioid drug.
The DEA’s response to the “60 Minutes” segment, via CBS, brings up the same issue. Here’s what CBS reported:
“‘During the past seven years, we have removed approximately 900 registrations annually, preventing reckless doctors and rogue businesses from making an already troubling problem worse,’ the DEA said in a written statement. ‘Increasingly, our investigators initiated more than 10,000 cases and averaged more than 2,000 arrests per year.'”
That could be true, but this problem isn’t going to be solved by going after rogue doctors and pharmacies. That’s like going after dealers instead of the heads of cartels. That’s not how you fight a drug war – and isn’t that what this is supposed to be?
You may also be thinking: “But Linette, Trump is on top of this whole opioid-crisis thing.”
That is the stuff of nonsense. The only thing Trump has done about the crisis is actually a boon to drugmakers and distributors. Everything else is just a bunch of sound bites. Americans know this – a recent PBS NewsHour and Marist poll found that most people don’t think the government is doing much about the crisis.
This isn’t to say that the Obama administration doesn’t deserve a great deal of blame for this. The bill Marino helped write basically makes it impossible for the DEA to freeze opioid shipments; Obama signed that into law. People who worked in his DOJ and DEA made it happen when they turned to the private sector.
But shout-out to Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri for launching an investigation into the business practices of these drugmakers and distributors. As I’ve argued, going after big business is the only way to stop the opioid crisis – everything else is ornamental. McCaskill is also calling for the repeal of the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act.
Of course, being in the minority, she has little power.
In fact, the way Rannazzisi tells it, big pharma has all the power.
I’ll just leave this right here.