Santa Fe New Mexican, July 21, 2019
Money, politics and the opioid crisis
By John House
The death toll from the decades long U.S. opioid crisis is not just a human and societal tragedy of enormous proportions, it is a symptom of a corporate culture that puts profit above all else, even the lives of our own children. It is also a blatant example of a systemic failure by our government to put the public good above the interests of wealthy individual interests.
The opioid crisis took off in the late 1990s, after pharmaceutical manufacturing companies like Purdue Pharma assured Congress and the medical community that their new opioid-based prescription pain medications were safe and not addictive. Greenlighted by the drugmakers, medical professionals prescribed and pharmacies dispensed opioid pain meds in greater and greater quantities. So-named “pain clinics,” some legal, others not even regulated by law in some states, sprung up all over the country, dispensing drugs like OxyContin, hydrocodone, oxycodone and fentanyl to just about anyone and everyone who asked for them.
According to statistics cited by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the number of deaths annually attributable to opioid overdose in America ballooned from a few thousand in 1999 to 70,237 in 2017. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports on its website that today, more than 130 people in the United States die every day after overdosing on opioids. Opioid overdose is now the leading cause of death in the U.S. among people between the ages of 18 and 50. Nearly everyone in America either has a family member, friend or knows someone who has died from an opioid overdose or suffers from chronic opioid addiction.
The ongoing U.S. opioid crisis is the latest, egregious, heartbreaking example of the corrupting influence of special interest money upon government. As revealed by a shocking joint investigation and article first published by the Washington Post and a video segment aired in 2017 on CBS’ 60 Minutes titled “The Whistleblower,” both the administrative and legislative branches of the federal government were co-opted by major drug distribution companies to aid them in their mission to proliferate opioid-based drugs despite their knowledge of gross abuse. When the DEA’s enforcement arm, the Diversion Control Division, pressed giant drug distribution companies Cardinal Health, McKesson and AmerisourceBergen to stop suspicious (overly large or frequent) orders, as they are required to do by the Controlled Substances Act, the distributors ignored them and continued to ship.
After the DEA persisted and prosecuted and secured fines of over $341 million against them, the distributors used their money and influence to pressure the DEA to slow down prosecution of cases against them. And it did. Next, the drug industry lobbied Congress, spending over $106 million asking for protection from “overzealous” DEA enforcement.
In 2014, U.S. House Reps. Tom Marino, R-Pa., and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., sponsored a bill to eliminate the Diversion Control Division’s most effective enforcement tool — the ability to freeze shipments of suspicious drug orders. The bill passed Congress by consent (no one opposed it) and was signed into law by President Barack Obama in March 2016. Our government was apparently asleep. DEA Chief Administrative Law Judge John J. Mulrooney later wrote in a Marquette University law journal article that the new law would make it virtually impossible for the Diversion Control Division to enforce the law against the big drug distributors.
For now, the can has been kicked down the road to the American judicial system. Lawsuits brought by city, county and state governments against OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma and other Big Pharma culprits are all over the news. Too little and too late: No amount of money paid to state and local governments could ever make up for the hundreds of thousands of lives lost and families destroyed. What the scope of government should be in protecting the American people from national disasters like the opioid epidemic is subject to wide-ranging debate. Nevertheless, it is obvious that facilitating the problem and protecting and allowing the instigators to do their dirty work isn’t it.
When elected officials choose to serve the large corporations and wealthy special interests who fund their campaigns over the people who elected them, and when they and high-level administrative officials divert or cripple government in exchange for the promise of lucrative company jobs or lobbying contracts after they leave office, it is a monstrous betrayal of the people by government.
Until our campaign finance and lobbying laws are reformed to regulate money spent upon political campaigns and in influencing elected officials, the voices of ordinary citizens will continue to be drowned out by the more influential voices of the rich and powerful. Unfortunately, although many on Capitol Hill do support changing the current campaign finance and lobbying systems, a majority of them are not motivated to do so. Why should they be? As campaign winners, they are the direct beneficiaries of this most undemocratic system of electing our federal representatives. Since it is unlikely that Congress will act on its own, the American people will have to stand up en masse and demand reform.
John House is a Santa Fe resident and president of New Mexicans for Money Out of Politics.