Congress and the Opioid Crisis

In April 2016, Congress stripped the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) of the ability to freeze suspicious shipments of narcotics, which resulted in prescription painkillers to fill the nation’s streets during the deadliest drug epidemic in United States history, according to an investigation done by “60 Minutes” and The Washington Post.

A few members of Congress, with the help and influence of some of the top drug distributors, dealt a blow to the DEA and the Justice Department by putting in place a law that greatly favors the industry while undermining drug enforcement efforts related to painkillers. With more than 200,000 lives claimed by opioids, and the number continuing to rise, the DEA strongly opposed the effort.

In the past, drug distributors received fines for ignoring DEA warnings, which asked them to shut down sales of prescription painkillers that were deemed suspicious, all while the companies profited billions of dollars from the sales.

The new industry-friendly law from Congress makes it essentially impossible for the DEA to freeze suspicious shipments from distributors, stripping the agency of the best tool to immediately prevent drugs from reaching the street.

The leading advocate and architect of the law was Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA), who is President Trump’s nominee to lead the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) was key to the legislation passing after negotiating a final version with the DEA.

The pharmaceutical industry has been working for years on a lobbying and funding campaign on Capitol Hill to weaken DEA enforcement efforts against drug distributors that were supplying narcotics with little to no regulation. Significant industry players worked with lobbyists and key members of Congress and spent millions of dollars in election campaigns.

Pharmaceutical political action committees contributed over $1.5 million to the 23 Congressional members that sponsored or co-sponsored the bill, with nearly $100,000 going to Marino and $177,000 to Hatch. The industry spent $102 million in lobbying efforts for the bill and other legislation between 2014 and 2016.

“The drug industry, the manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors and chain drugstores, have an influence over Congress that has never been seen before,” Joseph T. Rannazzisi, who ran the DEA division responsible for regulating the drug industry, said in a statement to The Washington Post. “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.”

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