October 18, 2017

The Opioid Epidemic: Overdosing on Cronyism

The Drug Enforcement Administration may have had a hand in the rise of the nation’s opiate crisis.

The Drug Enforcement Administration may have had a hand in the rise of the nation’s opioid epidemic, according a recent report by “60 Minutes” and The Washington Post. In the report, former DEA agent and whistleblower Joe Rannazzisi explained how the DEA’s Office of Diversion Control, which he managed, failed to properly regulate pharmaceutical companies that were manufacturing and distributing opioids.

The opioid epidemic is responsible for 188,000 deaths by overdose between 1999 and 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Other estimates put that figure at more than half a million. Overdoses have been a bigger killer than car crashes or guns — particularly notable at a time when leftists are pushing again for gun control. It was part of the responsibility of the DEA to turn the tide on opioid abuse, but it failed to do so in a big way.

For years, the DEA had been going after companies that were pushing out large volumes of opioids. The agency would freeze shipments and pull licenses in an attempt to combat the spread of the drugs, which are highly addictive and have ravaged a number of communities around the country. The pharmaceutical industry saw a danger to a major revenue stream and hired lobbyists to push for legislation that would weaken regulations. In 2016, they garnered enough support to get a bill through Congress and signed by Barack Obama. The law was backed in the House by Rep. Tom Marino, the Pennsylvania Republican who Donald Trump nominated in September to lead the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

But Marino withdrew his nomination for drug czar Tuesday after mounting criticism over his role in backing the legislation. In other words, Donald Trump said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

The DEA defended its actions to combat the opioid crisis after the “60 Minutes” story broke, noting that it has removed 900 registrations each year for the last seven years and reined in rogue doctors and businesses. Reversing the rules to give the DEA more leeway to regulate the pharmaceutical industry would allow the agency to do even more.

However, argues Reason’s Jacob Sullum, “According to those reports, which were the product of a joint investigation, Marino was doing the bidding of the pharmaceutical industry, and everyone else involved in enacting his bill was either bought off, duped, or steamrollered. But that portrayal is persuasive only if you follow the lead of 60 Minutes and the Post by uncritically adopting the perspective of a hardline DEA faction that was unhappy with the bill.” The libertarian Sullum seriously questions whether the “simpleminded” pro-regulation narrative is actually the right one.

President Trump said that he would officially declare the opioid epidemic to be a national emergency, but he has yet to do so. Such a declaration would go at least a little ways toward directing federal efforts to combat an incredibly serious problem.

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