Regulators’ unholy alliance with opioid profiteers

Don’t let anything get in the way of profits, the industry’s efforts suggested — even if it means tens of thousands of overdose deaths and overwhelming local law enforcers with the crime and violence associated with rising addiction rates.

As the nation’s opioid-addiction problem mushroomed into a full-blown epidemic, major drug manufacturers and distributors anticipated that a regulatory crackdown was coming. So they boosted campaign donations to key lawmakers and spent $106 million successfully lobbying Congress to limit enforcement powers that might have stemmed the epidemic.

Don’t let anything get in the way of profits, the industry’s efforts suggested — even if it means tens of thousands of overdose deaths and overwhelming local law enforcers with the crime and violence associated with rising addiction rates. Folks, it doesn’t get more cynical than this.

The drug lobby formed alliances with two key GOP lawmakers — Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Rep. Tom Marino of Pennsylvania — whose Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act of 2016 placed handcuffs on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s ability to crack down, according to The Washington Post and CBS’ “60 Minutes.”

Bizarrely, President Donald Trump, who has labeled the opioid problem a national emergency, nominated Marino to head the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. (Marino withdrew as a nominee on Oct. 17.)

The Hatch-Marino law’s net effect has been to block the DEA from intervening when it recognizes suspicious sales patterns involving pharmaceutical companies, distributors and corrupt doctors. In March, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) launched an investigation into industry profiteering from the addiction epidemic. On Oct. 16, she announced a bid to repeal the 2016 law.

The report by The Washington Post and “60 Minutes” detailed extraordinary levels of collusion between federal regulators and the prescription drug industry. With the promise of high salaries, top DEA officials were lured to become lobbyists and advisers for the very industry they once scrutinized. Together, they applied pressure to minimize law enforcement agencies’ objections to the 2016 bill as the federal government boosted crackdown efforts.

Joseph T. Rannazzisi, former head of the DEA division that regulated the prescription drug industry, described lobbyists’ influence as unprecedented: “I mean, to get Congress to pass a bill to protect their interests in the height of an opioid epidemic just shows me how much influence they have.”

“They weren’t slinging crack on the corner,” Rannazzisi added. “These were professionals who were doing it. They were just drug dealers in lab coats.”

As the industry’s lobbying effort escalated and pressure mounted on the DEA to relax its crackdown, Rannazzisi was forced out of his job.

Congress and President Barack Obama let their guard down, which is why the Hatch-Marino law was passed and signed. At this point, the fastest way to stop the nation’s bleeding is to … give McCaskill’s repeal bill the fair hearing it deserves.

— ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH