In the same week that he decided that the U.S. opiate epidemic is a “national emergency,” Trump was forced to withdraw his nominee for Drug Czar, when Rep. Tom Marino was recognized as a congressional water-carrier for Big Pharma opiate producers and one who has impeded the effort to battle the epidemic.
For years, illicit opiate use has been on the rise in the United States, leading to the worst drug crisis in U.S. history, one that has claimed ten times more lives in a single year than all terrorist attacks (including 9/11) on U.S. soil over the last two decades. While the federal government has made public attempts to curb the problem — including President Donald Trump’s recent decision to declare the crisis a “national emergency” — little has resulted from these initiatives, as the harrowing surge in opiate use continues unabated.
Though some may blame government incompetence or perhaps a lack of funding for the failure of federal initiatives to effectively combat the crisis, two whistleblowers from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) have come forward, stating plainly that the U.S. government is fully complicit in fueling the crisis.
In an interview with CBS’ 60 Minutes, which aired on Sunday, the former head of the DEA’s Office of Diversion Control, Joe Rannazzisi, accused his former employer of bowing to pressure from the pharmaceutical industry, which led the agency to turn down cases targeting large distributors and producers of opiates — cases it would once have easily approved.
Former DEA attorney Jonathan Novak backed up Rannazzisi’s claims, arguing that the change in protocol for investigating and prosecuting large pharmaceutical companies and their distributors first began in 2013. “These were not cases […] where it was grey… These were cases where the evidence was crystal clear that there was wrongdoing going on,” Novak told CBS.
Another DEA whistleblower who appeared on the program — Jim Geldhof, a former DEA investigator — spoke of a particular case in which he was confronted with bureaucratic “roadblocks” by DEA supervisors when trying to investigate how 11 million opiate pills found their way into a rural West Virginia county with a population of just 25,000:
Every time I talked to this guy he wants something else. And I get it for him and that’s still not good enough. And this goes on and on and on. When these roadblocks keep get thrown up in your face, at that point you know they just don’t want the case.”
Watch | Segment from 60 Minutes interview with DEA whistleblowers
Many of the members of this new cadre of DEA whistleblowers asserted that one of the chief reasons for the agency’s change in behavior was the emergence of a “revolving door” between the DEA and top pharmaceutical companies.As CBS noted, at least 46 DEA investigators, attorneys, and supervisors were hired by the pharmaceutical industry once scrutiny of major drug distributors began. According to DEA Chief Administrative Law Judge John J. Mulrooney, one of the pharmaceutical industry’s hires from the DEA went on to write legislation that “made it all but impossible” to go after opiate distributors acting in an unlawful manner.
A nomination withdrawn, just the tip of the cynical iceberg
Rannazzisi, along with other DEA whistleblowers, also made it a point to call out Congress, which he argues is beholden to the whims of the pharmaceutical industry. “Congress would rather listen to people who had a profit motive rather than a public health and safety motive,” he stated. “As long as the industry has this stranglehold through lobbyists, nothing’s going to change.”
Indeed, it was Congress that passed the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act, the bill DEA whistleblowers have blamed for making unscrupulous drug companies practically impossible to prosecute. The measure was co-sponsored by Tom Marino (R-PA), who was recently nominated by President Trump to head the DEA and has since withdrawn his name from consideration after the DEA whistleblowers came forward. Seven months after the bill became law, Marino’s chief of staff, Bill Tighe, became a lobbyist for the National Association of Chain Drug Stores.
BREAKING: Trump says Rep. Tom Marino of Pennsylvania is withdrawing his name from consideration as drug czar.
— The Associated Press (@AP) October 17, 2017
This chain of events, which culminated in Marino’s embarrassing withdrawal, likely came to pass because Rannazzisi, after catching wind of the bill, accused Marino and the bill’s other co-sponsor, Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), of protecting drug companies at the expense of the public. Marino and Blackburn later wrote to the Justice Department, demanding that Rannazzisi be investigated for attempts to “intimidate the United States Congress.” Their plea later led Rannazzisi to be demoted, pushing him to resign.
More broadly, even members of Congress tasked with investigating the root causes of the opiate crisis have done so in such a way as to shield the industry’s most powerful companies. For instance, in her probe of opiate manufacturers, Senator Claire McCaskill (R-MO) omitted Mallinckrodt, the largest opiate producer in the country, from her inquiry despite the fact that its opiate products alone account for more than 18.6% of the total market. Mallinckrodt also happens to be based in McCaskill’s home state and donated thousands to her 2015 campaign committee.
While Congress and the DEA were the subjects of scorn in the 60 Minutes segment, it is also worth noting that the U.S. government, in general, is guilty of fueling the crisis — particularly due to the nearly 17-year-long occupation of Afghanistan, which over that time period has become the world’s largest supplier of opium and heroin.
A “national emergency” springing directly from national policy
Though the U.S. government claims to have devoted over $8.4 billion to counter-narcotic programs in Afghanistan, the expenditure has been overseen directly by U.S. forces, who openly guard poppy fields in the Afghan countryside, often asserting that they must “tolerate” the poppy fields in order to prevent the local population from turning against them. Meanwhile, the opiate crisis in the United States has spiraled out of control. For instance, between 2005 and 2015, heroin use doubled among young adults in the U.S., coinciding with Afghanistan’s surge in opium production.
With Trump having approved an increase of even more U.S. troops to guard and “tolerate” Afghan poppy fields, opium and heroin will continue to flow into the U.S. and fuel the epidemic that claimed an estimated 60,000 lives last year. As evidenced by this new DEA whistleblower testimony, these opiates will continue to kill Americans far more wantonly than “terrorists” at their worst have been able to, until Congress and U.S. federal agencies like the DEA stop choosing the promise of profit from massive pharmaceutical companies over the health and well-being of the American people.
Top photo | Seized prescription drugs displayed in a glass flask in the controlled substance room of the Utah state crime lab in Taylorsville, Utah. (AP/Rick Bowmer)