Meet the Lawmakers Who Weakened the DEA at the Height of the Opioid Crisis

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Meet the Lawmakers Who Weakened the DEA at the Height of the Opioid Crisis

The Washington Post, working alongside 60 Minutes, published a massive report yesterday that details the legislative history of the opioid crisis. It specifically looks at the effects of the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act, a bill supported unanimously by Congress and signed into law in 2016 by Barack Obama.

The problem is, WaPo reports that politicians mostly signed off on the law without knowing its true intent: hobbling the Drug Enforcement Agency in its fight against prescription drug companies.

Prescription drugs are the cause of what’s known as the opioid crisis, with thousands of Americans overdosing on prescription medicine and dying each year. And the death toll shows no signs of slowing down, as it is now “virtually impossible” for the DEA to stop suspicious prescription drug shipments or hit drug companies with noteworthy fines.

WaPo’s report primarily follows two men, Joseph T. Rannazzisi and D. Linden Barber, through the years that led to the law’s passing. Rannazzisi ran the regulatory division of the DEA, and he worked with Barber to build legislation to aid in that fight. He and Barber were able to extract record numbers of civil penalties from the drug companies as they demonstrated the organizations’ negligence and outright profiteering regarding the crisis.

Unfortunately, this was not to last, as Barber essentially switched sides. Dozens of DEA employees have done the same, as they realized that the companies shamelessly profiting off of human misery gave them better career options than the U.S. government. It was Barber who reportedly wrote the final version of the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act for Congressman Tom Marino, who introduced it to Congress.

The law, which was advertised as a means to ensure patients who genuinely needed their prescription medicine would get it quickly, was more about restricting the DEA. No longer can the DEA stop massive, suspicious shipments of prescription drugs without proving they’re an immediate threat, something that’s virtually impossible to do. This allowed unscrupulous prescription drug companies to move almost unregulated by the DEA, and left any punitive action in the hands of lawsuits. Some cases from before the law, like Jim Geldhof’s 2015 case against Miami-Luken (which is accused of multiple violations of federal law, mostly for flooding West Virginia with far more prescription drugs than could ever legally be used), are still pending.

While the DEA had opposed such a law for years, politicians weren’t aware of this fact. Indeed, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) mentioned that he hadn’t heard any opposition at all from the DEA during the legislative process. This could be due to the fact that Rannazzisi had left the DEA by then (he is currently working as a consultant in a lawsuit against the opioid industry). WaPo tried to talk to several other politicians, but most declined to comment on the law. A spokesperson for Republican Senator Orrin Hatch said that they had “worked collaboratively” with the DEA. A few others, like Democrat Peter Welch and Republican Gus Bilirakis, said something vague about the promises of the bill.

But the majority of those who WaPo tried to reach for comment declined. That majority included Senators Marco Rubio, David Vitter and Bill Cassidy, and Representatives Ryan A. Costello, Marsha Blackburn, Judy Chu and Douglas A. Collins. Not only that, but the newspaper is currently suing the Department of Justice under the Freedom of Information Act for the release of public records, after asking for those records over a year ago.

It’s almost like lawmakers want to forget this happened. Or maybe they don’t us to look too closely at how much money (over $100 million) the pharmaceutical industry has pumped into Congress over the last few years. Read WaPo’s full report here to make sure they don’t get their wish.