A former Drug Enforcement Administration chief claims that Congress, lobbyists and the drug industry conspired to restrict the agency’s ability to halt suspicious drug shipments that contribute to the opioid epidemic, according to a joint investigation by The Washington Post and “60 Minutes.”
Limiting the DEA’s power allowed drug distributors to provide corrupt pharmacies and pain clinics across the United States with an overabundance of prescription opioids, which then filtered into the black market.
“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,” Joe Rannazzisi, who served as deputy assistant administrator of the DEA’s Office of Diversion Control from 2006 to 2015, told “60 Minutes.”
He said the three largest distributors — Cardinal Health, McKesson, and AmerisourceBergen — have shipped a bevy of suspicious orders for prescription opioids to unreliable clinics in areas greatly affected by the epidemic, including West Virginia.
On Oct. 16, a day after a report on the investigation aired on “60 Minutes,” President Donald Trump said that he will soon declare the opioid crisis a national emergency, fulfilling a promise he made in August. He also said that he will release details next week on how his administration will combat the epidemic.
“This country and, frankly, the world has a drug problem,” Trump told reporters at a news conference. “We’re going to do something about it.”
The opioid crisis is the deadliest drug epidemic in U.S. history. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 91 Americans die of opioid overdose every day. Since 1999, the number of overdose deaths involving heroin and prescription opioids has quadrupled.
During his time with the DEA, Rannazzisi aggressively pursued drug companies who supplied opioids to pill mills. When the DEA discovered that drug distributors were ignoring obligations to report suspicious drug orders, the agency threatened to revoke their registrations.
In 2008, the DEA fined McKesson and Cardinal Health for filling hundreds of suspicious orders for prescription opioids. Over a decade, the government assessed 17 cases against 13 drug companies and one manufacturer, which led to $425 million in fines.
Powerful drug companies eventually used their money and influence to pressure the DEA to tone down their distribution restrictions, according to Rannazzisi. As a result, DEA executives began demanding from investigators more evidence of wrongdoing before prosecuting distributors.
Jonathan Novak, former DEA attorney, said that many lawyers who worked for the agency accepted higher-paying positions to defend the drug companies. These litigators, who knew all the weak points in the DEA’s cases, told DEA executives that many cases filed against drug companies would not win in court.
“Addiction rate was still increasing,” said Rannazzisi. “The amount of people seeking treatment was still increasing. It was all increasing. Still, the amount of prescriptions were increasing. And we started slowing down.”
Then, in 2015, Pennsylvania Rep. Tom Marino and Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn introduced the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act.
The bill required the DEA to provide evidence that a company’s actions demonstrate an immediate threat to public health before the agency can suspend shipments. A 2015 Justice Department memo later obtained by investigators with “60 Minutes” and The Washington Post said the legislation could increase drug diversion, abuse and public health consequences.
The bill was written by Linden Barber, former associate chief counsel for the DEA who now serves as senior vice president at Cardinal Health.
“It’s not surprising that this bill, that has intimate knowledge of the way that DEA, you know, regulations are enforced, the way that those laws work, was written by someone who spent a lot of time there, charged a lot of cases there,” said Novak.
Political action committees representing the drug industry contributed at least $1.5 million to lawmakers who sponsored or co-sponsored four versions of the legislation. From 2014 to 2016, drug companies spent $102 million lobbying Congress to support the bill.
Rannazzisi testified against the bill before Congress. He referenced opioid-related death statistics in 2010 and claimed that the bill would protect drug companies under DEA investigation. However, he could not convince Congress to reject the bill.
Former President Barack Obama signed the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act into law in April 2016.
“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 [Congresswoman] Blackburn’s district,” said Rannazzisi.
In September 2017, Trump nominated Marino to be the next head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. However, on Oct. 17, two days after the investigation was released, Marino withdrew his name from consideration for the position.
On Oct. 16, the DEA responded to the investigation. The agency reaffirmed its commitment to ending the opioid crisis, referring to its removal of about 900 registrations each year to prevent corrupt physicians and pharmacies from worsening the epidemic.
“Increasingly, our investigators initiated more than 10,000 cases and averaged more than 2,000 arrests per year,” the DEA said in a statement.
Ian D. Prior, principal deputy director of public affairs at the Justice Department, said in a statement that the Trump administration is dedicated to curbing the pill diversion that has resulted in thousands of deaths across the country.
However, the DEA did not dispute any claims made in the investigation.
Former DEA acting administrator Chuck Rosenberg, who served from May 2015 to October 2017, told CBS News that he does not intend to watch the “60 Minutes” story.