CBS’ 60 Minutes and the Washington Post are to be commended for derailing the president’s appointment of a shill for the drug industry as the nation’s drug czar.
Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.) withdrew his nomination when it was revealed that he had engineered passage of a bill in 2016 that hamstrung the ability of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to stop drug sales fueling the opioid epidemic. He had raked in about $100,000 from the pharmaceutical industry for his efforts. While a swamp creature bit the dust, there is more to the story of drug company greed.
When I was Idaho attorney general in the late 1980s, it was known that hydrocodone and oxycodone were effective pain relievers, but highly addictive. At that time, the use of these opioids was generally limited to severe pain cases because of their addictive properties. However, in the 1990s some opioid makers saw gold in them thar hills and started aggressively marketing opioids, such as Purdue Pharma’s Oxycontin, as a general remedy for pain. Endo Pharmaceuticals and Johnson & Johnson joined in to peddle their opioids for wide use.
Advertisements in reputable medical journals hyped the use of opioid products as safe and effective pain relievers. Pharmaceutical companies reached into continuing education courses for doctors and medical school curricula to promote the widespread use of opioids. Attractive drug representatives assured doctors there was no need to be concerned that patients would become addicted to opioids. Lobbyists were employed to smooth the way for marketing these addictive painkillers without regulatory interference.
The drug companies obviously knew that these products were addictive and that many people who used them would become hooked, but the bright side was massive profits. The chances of being criminally prosecuted were remote, so they went full steam ahead.
As disclosed in the CBS/Post report, the major drug distributors got in on the act, making massive sales of opioid pills to pill-mill pharmacies that were obviously selling them to drug addicts. The DEA took note and began targeting suspicious drug shipments, which led to passage of the bill neutering the DEA’s enforcement effort. Rep. Marino was also able in the process to get rid of the DEA agent who was trying to stop the distributors’ drug trafficking. This occurred at the height of the opioid crisis when tens of thousands of Americans were dying of opioid overdoses each year (almost 65,000 in 2016). Nevertheless, both houses of Congress passed the Marino bill last year with nary a whimper. Talk about Congress being asleep at the switch. Perhaps some of the slumbers were aided by the millions of dollars of drug industry money pouring into congressional campaign coffers.
It seems to me that companies which sell a product, knowing that it is being abused and that it is killing people, should have to answer under the criminal law. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to prosecute low-level drug dealers and subject them to mandatory minimum sentences. Shouldn’t he focus some enforcement effort against high-level drug company executives whose greed drives them to carelessly pedal addiction and death to the public? The Idaho congressional delegation can help by working to overturn the 2016 legislation and demanding that the Justice Department go after the corporate drug pushers.
Jim Jones is a former Idaho Supreme Court chief justice and also a former Idaho attorney general.