Bricks and Mortars

Collins, King, Pingree and Poliquin: Protecting criminals?

By Lawrence Reichard | Oct 27, 2017

I know what it's like to lose a family member to opioids. My half-brother Scott died of a heroin overdose in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in 1984. He was a physician. He went to Johns Hopkins, one of the most prestigious medical schools in the country.

And so I was appalled to read in a Washington Post/60 Minutes exposé that big pharmaceutical companies have for years been throwing rocket fuel on the nationwide opioid epidemic by sending literally hundreds of millions of opioid pills to fill vast numbers of highly questionable prescriptions at national chain pharmacies, and at shady, fringe pharmacies and "pain management clinics" coast to coast. The street corner pusher has been replaced by men and women in suits and lab coats. And unlike their street corner brethren, few if any of these criminals will ever see the inside of a jail or prison.

To cite but one of many examples, from 2007 to 2011, pharmaceutical companies shipped 11 million doses of oxycodone and hydrocodone to Mingo County, West Virginia, population 25,000. That's 110 doses per year for every man, woman and child.

One of the biggest offenders, and proud recipient of an $80 million Drug Enforcement Agency fine, was Walgreen's, located right smack-dab at the corner of death and destruction.

But it gets worse. A lot worse. DEA was cracking down on big pharma's intentional and highly profitable savaging of communities from Eastport to San Diego. When the agency spotted suspiciously large shipments of prescription opioids to pharmacies and the like, it had the power to immediately stop such shipments, to investigate and to levy fines against drug manufacturers and distributors. And it did. But then all that changed.

Needless to say, big pharma was none too happy about DEA's aggressive approach. After all, what's more important, thousands of deaths — or profits, immense profits? In 2012, the top 11 drug companies alone amassed $85 billion in profit. That's about $250 per person, for everyone in the country, in one year. That's profit, not sales. And all alone atop this putrid pile of profit is the Sackler family, whose 2015 wealth Forbes Magazine pegged at $15 billion, the bulk of which came from pushing Oxycontin by the truckload.

So big pharma prevailed on Rep.Tom Marino, R-Pa., to sponsor a bill with the Orwellian name of "Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act" (HR 4709). The bill eviscerated DEA investigations and actions by raising the evidence standard for launching an investigation from "the preponderance of evidence" to "beyond a reasonable doubt." DEA lead investigator Joe Rannazzisi said of the Marino bill: "They'll be protecting criminals."

Big pharma expressed to then Obama administration Attorney General Loretta Lynch its displeasure with Rannazzisi, a dedicated, committed and very aggressive investigator. Rannazzisi was then promptly reassigned from overseeing 600 personnel to overseeing, well, no one.

And Lynch gushed slavishly to big pharma in a way that would make President Trump's toady cabinet blush. Lynch met with 300 drug company reps and committed to working "more closely" with drug companies. Nice. Lynch did not meet with 300 mothers of prescription pill overdosers.

Remaining DEA investigators got the message. The number of DEA investigations plummeted. Immediate shipment suspensions plunged from 65 in 2011 to a mere eight in 2016. Big pharma was back in business. Back in the business of death.

Marino's bill passed in 2016, a year in which opioid overdoses claimed 375 Mainers, more than one a day. And every single member of Maine's congressional delegation voted for Marino's bill. In fact, it passed in the House and Senate by "unanimous consent," a fly-by parliamentary maneuver that lets everyone get the hell out of the chamber and on to their favorite bar stool in time for happy hour.

And yes, the bill's sponsor was the same Tom Marino that President Trump recently nominated to head Office of National Drug Control Policy. But that was too much for even this otherwise supine Congress and Trump had to withdraw the nomination.

The Maine Attorney General's Office estimates that 30 percent of Maine's opioid deaths are from prescription opioids or a combination that includes prescription opioids. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the national figure is 50 percent. In Maine, fully 75 percent of heroin abusers start with prescription opioids. In other words, prescription opioids are killers, plain and simple, and all of Maine's congressional delegation are aiders and abetters.

Perhaps no one in Maine's congressional delegation actually read the Marino bill. But that's no excuse. According to insidegov.com, Angus King has a staff of 54. Get one — or 50 — of them to read it.

And why would anyone vote for a bill unread? True, the DEA signed off on the bill, but if any member of Congress thinks government agencies are impervious to corruption, they should go back home to where their stupefying ignorance can do less damage.

And then there's money. Lots of money. According to opensecrets.com, Bruce Poliquin has received $31,000 from big pharma. Angus King has received $41,000, and Susan Collins dwarfs Tom Marino's own paltry $155,000 with a whopping $666,000. But I'm sure there's no connection between that and their vote on Tom Marino's lovely little bill. Sheer coincidence.

OK, so maybe no one in Maine's congressional delegation read the Marino bill — the question is what are they going to do about it now? When are they going to stand up and do the right thing for the people of Maine and the people of the United States and introduce a bill to repeal the murderous Marino bill? When are they going to stand up and do the right thing by my half-brother Scott and stop this profit-driven slaughter that they have, wittingly or unwittingly, aided and abetted?

We're waiting. We're all waiting.

Lawrence Reichard is a first-place Maine Press Association winner, freelance writer and activist living in Belfast.


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