Trump's Potential Drug Czar Under Fire Over Opioids Report

Investigation says Tom Marino, other lawmakers, defanged DEA on the drugs
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 16, 2017 1:51 PM CDT
Investigation Implicates Congress in Opioid Epidemic
A file photo of Rep. Tom Marino of Pennsylvania.   (Jake Danna Stevens/The Times-Tribune via AP, File)

A damning investigation by 60 Minutes and the Washington Post on the nation's opioid crisis might mean trouble for President Trump's nominee to be the nation's drug czar. The investigation shows how a group of congressional lawmakers, working with big drug distributors, weakened the DEA's ability to stem the flow of opioids onto the nation's streets in 2016. The chief architect of the law is Rep. Tom Marino of Pennsylvania, who has been nominated by Trump to be the next drug czar. Details and developments:

  • The whistleblower: The linchpin of the investigation is Joe Rannazzisi, who was once in charge of the DEA unit that regulated the pharmaceutical industry. 60 Minutes calls him "one of the most important whistleblowers" it has ever interviewed. Excerpts here, including: "This is an industry that allowed millions and millions of drugs to go into bad pharmacies and doctors' offices, that distributed them out to people who had no legitimate need for those drugs." And: “The drug industry, the manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors and chain drugstores, have an influence over Congress that has never been seen before."
  • Trump weighs in: The president said he's looking into the report and promised to pull Marino's name if he determines that the congressman did anything to hurt the fight against opioids, reports Politico. Trump added that he'd have a "major announcement," probably next week, about his opioid strategy. Trump previously said he'd formally declare the crisis to be a national emergency but hasn't done so yet.

  • The lawmakers: The Washington Post has the nitty gritty on how the lawmakers, led by Marino, crafted a law that "makes it virtually impossible for the DEA to freeze suspicious narcotic shipments from the companies." PACs from Big Pharma gave at least $1.5 million to 23 legislators who worked on various versions. Marino got about $100,000 and Orrin Hatch, who negotiated the final version with the DEA, got $177,000. The story includes responses from lawmakers who crafted the final version.
  • The change: For decades, the DEA could stop drug shipments that it deemed an "imminent danger" to the public. That broad authority shrank under the new law, which now requires the DEA to show “a substantial likelihood of an immediate threat,” a higher threshold.
  • One result: A Justice Department memo shows that 65 doctors, pharmacies, and drug companies received suspension orders in 2011, compared to just six this year, per CBS News.
  • Fallout: Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who represents West Virginia, one of the states hardest hit by the opioid epidemic, called for Trump to withdraw Marino's nomination, per the Hill. And fellow Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill already has introduced legislation to repeal the law, notes another Hill story.
  • No comment: Marino did not comment to the news organizations and called Capitol Police when then they arrived at his office in an attempt to interview him. But he has previously criticized the DEA for being too aggressive and called for more collaboration with the industry.
  • Blackburn, too: Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, a candidate for Senate, also is getting negative headlines over the story. Witness the Tennessean. Blackburn co-sponsored the legislation and received $120,000 in campaign contributions from pharmaceutical companies.
  • DEA response: The agency says it will continue to "use all the tools at our disposal to combat this epidemic." And adds: "During the past seven years, we have removed approximately 900 registrations annually, preventing reckless doctors and rogue businesses from making an already troubling problem worse. Increasingly, our investigators initiated more than 10,000 cases and averaged more than 2,000 arrests per year."
(More opioids stories.)

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