DEA Whistleblower: Congress Worked With Lobbyists To Fuel Opioid Crisis

By Keri Blakinger 10/17/17

“All we were looking for is a good-faith effort by these companies to do the right thing. And there was no good-faith effort. Greed always trumped compliance.”

 Caucasian man holding whistle highlighting corruption

A scathing investigation by the Washington Post and 60 Minutes exposes how Congress and drug industry lobbyists may have fueled the ongoing opioid crisis, laying bare the insidious effects of a single piece of Big Pharma-backed legislation that left the DEA powerless to fight the growing scourge.

The drug czar nominee behind the legislation that sparked the investigation has withdrawn his name from consideration on Tuesday morning, two days after the months-long investigation went public. “Rep. Tom Marino has informed me that he is withdrawing his name from consideration as drug czar,” President Donald Trump tweeted Tuesday. 

“This is an industry that's out of control,” said Joe Rannazzisi, a DEA whistleblower who once ran the agency’s Office of Diversion Control. “What they wanna do, is do what they wanna do, and not worry about what the law is. And if they don't follow the law in drug supply, people die. That's just it. People die.”

And they have—some 200,000 Americans have died over the past two decades as the opioid problem has blossomed into a national crisis. 

The investigation traces the problem back to the 1990s and early 2000s, when prescription opioids began flooding the market and Big Pharma repeatedly assured doctors they were safe.

Pain clinics popped up overnight, but even once the DEA started targeting them, the problem persisted. So the agency focused instead on distributors, the middle-man companies responsible for getting drugs from manufacturers to pharmacies. They, more than anyone else, knew where the over-prescribing hotspots were.

“They had a business plan. Their plan was to sell a lot of pills and make a lot of money. And they did both of those very well,” said 40-year DEA veteran Jim Geldhof. “All we were looking for is a good-faith effort by these companies to do the right thing. And there was no good-faith effort. Greed always trumped compliance.”

Since 1970, drug companies have been required to report suspiciously large order to the feds. If they didn’t, the DEA would order companies to “show cause,” or explain why their registration should not be revoked. Sometimes, feds would hit offending companies with a fine. Sometimes, they’d halt shipments and lock up the drugs.

For decades, the DEA relied on that ability to freeze drug shipments deemed an “imminent danger.” But the Marino bill changed all that, according to the investigation. Now, they have to show a “a substantial likelihood of an immediate threat” in order to freeze drugs, a standard Rannazzisi described as almost impossible. 

Drafted by a DEA prosecutor-turned-industry attorney, the measure drew fierce opposition from then-Attorney General Eric Holder. But a slew of big drug companies—from distributors to drug stores—banded together to pour more than $100 million into supporting the bill to effectively hamstring the agency tasked with fighting the spread of drugs.

In the wake of his outspoken opposition for the legislation, Rannazzisi found himself on the outs with the powers that be, and eventually resigned his post. 

In 2016, the Marino measure flew through the Senate and House—"with members of Congress chatting away on the floor"—and President Obama signed it into law. Senior administration officials later told the Post the commander-in-chief didn’t realize the bill’s potential impact.

“I just don't understand why Congress would pass a bill that strips us of our authority in the height of an opioid epidemic in places like Congressman Marino's district and Congressman Blackburn's district,” Rannazzisi told 60 Minutes.

“I think that the drug industry—the manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors and chain drugstores—have an influence over Congress that has never been seen before. And these people came in with their influence and their money and got a whole statute changed because they didn't like it." 

Even before the revelatory report hit newsstands Sunday, drug distributors’ stocks took a tumble, Bloomberg reported. Cardinal Health, McKesson and Amerisource Bergen—three distributors specifically called out in the report—all saw drops of more than 2% two days before the investigation aired.

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.