THE Washington Post
Multiple, glaring government breakdowns are documented in the revealing investigation of the opioid-overdose epidemic by The Post and CBS’ “60 Minutes.” The report exposed weakening federal enforcement of drug distribution; corrosive industry lobbying that crippled that enforcement; and a dysfunctional Congress and White House at a time when a debilitating scourge swept the country.
At the core of the story is the Drug Enforcement Administration, charged with making sure that prescription narcotics do not spill from the legitimate supply chain into the underworld of drug abuse. A DEA unit, the Office of Diversion Control, is supposed to keep pills from being siphoned off by what one former official calls “drug dealers in lab coats.” The investigation revealed how this vital DEA enforcement mission was badly undercut in a bill supported by the drug companies that passed Congress and was signed by President Barack Obama last year without sufficient scrutiny.
The breakdown of enforcement described The Washington Post is appalling. They report that a DEA effort was undertaken in the mid-2000s to target drug distribution companies that were shipping unusually large volumes of opioids. For example, one midsize distributor had shipped 20 million doses to pharmacies in West Virginia over five years; 11 million doses went to one county alone with a population of 25,000 people. Some pharmacies in Florida were nothing more than illicit drug dens, with streams of customers arriving in vans from Appalachia. “Back home, each 30-pill bottle of oxycodone was worth $900,” The Post reports. By going after the distributors, the DEA hoped to stanch this deadly trade. The DEA brought at least 17 enforcement cases against 13 drug distributors and one manufacturer under a hard-charging head of the Office of Diversion Control, Joseph Rannazzisi.
Then the rules changed. The DEA originally could freeze drug shipments that posed an “imminent danger” to the community, giving the agency broad authority to act. In 2014, the industry launched an effort to slow enforcement by changing the standard. The legislation was sponsored by Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., and aided by former DEA officials who went through the revolving door to help the drug companies. Some DEA officials pushed back; one wrote the bill “is fixing a problem that doesn’t need fixing.” At one point, Attorney General Eric Holder spoke out against the legislation, but over time, and after Holder left office, it sailed through Congress by unanimous consent and was signed by the president. The new law requires the DEA to show that a company’s actions represent “a substantial likelihood of an imminent threat,” a much higher threshold. Predictably, enforcement actions plummeted. Not a single immediate suspension order has targeted a distributor or manufacturer since late 2015 at a time when overdose deaths are skyrocketing.
All this adds up to disgraceful conduct. Congress must put teeth back in DEA enforcement. President Donald Trump suggested Monday he will reexamine Marino’s nomination as drug czar. He should withdraw it, and Marino instead should be held to account for kneecapping the DEA’s opioid enforcement effort.