President Donald Trump recently launched a high-profile White House initiative to combat the growing problem of opioid drug abuse in America. Yet his expected selection to oversee the nation’s drug laws is a congressman from an opioid-ravaged district whose signature legislative accomplishment is a bill that shielded prescription opioid distributors from law enforcement scrutiny.
The White House is expected to name Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa, to be the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) — a position often referred to as the nation’s “drug czar.” Marino is a former prosecutor who has represented a rural district in northeastern Pennsylvania since 2011. The ONDCP declined to comment for this story and Marino’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment as well.
If appointed, Marino would be the first member of Congress to become drug czar. He would come to the job after pulling in big money from an industry that is producing and distributing the nation’s most deadly legal drugs. Marino has received more than $150,000 in donations from the pharmaceutical industry in his political career, including $71,000 for the 2016 election, according to records at Maplight.org and Opensecrets.org. The data show Marino has received more money from the pharmaceutical industry than any other sector.
As the nation faces an opioid crisis fueled by the mass production and marketing of addictive prescription drugs, some physicians fighting the epidemic view Marino’s possible ascent to drug czar as a betrayal of rural communities ravaged by opioids — many of which voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump.
“This is the opposite of draining the swamp,” Dr. Andrew Kolodny, the co-director of Opioid Policy Research at Brandeis University and co-founder of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), told International Business Times. “In the midst of a public health crisis [Trump] is putting at the helm of the ONDCP someone who has worked for the opioid lobby against efforts to bring the epidemic under control.”
It’s hard to overstate how deadly the opioid epidemic has been for Americans. Since 1999, the number of overdose deaths from opioids has quadrupled, as did deaths from prescription opioids like oxycontin, fentanyl and hydrocodone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many experts blame this rise on the makers of opioid prescription drugs, like Purdue Pharma, the creator of oxycontin, which pled guilty to misleading doctors about the drug’s addictiveness and agreed to pay $600 million in fines in 2007. Three Purdue executives also agreed to pay a total of $34.5 million in fines.
“This epidemic was created by pharmaceutical companies,” Georgetown University’s Dr. Adrian Fugh-Berman told IBT. He is the director of PharmedOut, a group that advocates for responsible prescribing practices. “That’s not too strong to say.”
The epidemic has only intensified since Purdue’s guilty plea in 2007, and now cities and counties are bringing lawsuits against drug distributors — the companies that sell drugs wholesale. The three largest distributors — McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen, which together generated $430 billion in 2015 and account for 85 percent of the drug distribution market — have agreed to pay $230 million in fines to the federal government and opioid-plagued West Virginia since late December. The fines were connected to charges that the companies failed to report suspicious orders of pharmaceuticals.
According to Maplight.org, all three companies have given multiple campaign donations, totaling between $13,000 and $15,000, each to Marino who wrote legislation that made it harder for the DEA to take companies off a registry that allows them to distribute controlled substances. If the companies were dealt this penalty, they could potentially incur a far greater financial hit than fines.
Marino introduced three versions of the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act between 2014 and 2015 before H.R. 471 passed the House. In the Senate, Orrin Hatch, R-Ut, who received more money from the pharmaceutical industry than anyone in Congress between 2010 and 2016, introduced a companion bill. The legislation was eventually signed by President Barack Obama last year, but not before DEA Deputy Assistant Administrator Joseph Rannazzisi had a conversation with congressional staffers that provoked the ire of Marino, who said Rannazzisi told staffers the bill’s sponsors were “supporting criminals.” (Rannazzisi told the Washington Post he said the bill would “protect defendants in our cases.”)
During a congressional hearing, Marino told Rannazzisi’s boss the comments offended him “immensely,” and the congressman even asked the Justice Department to investigate whether Rannazzisi had tried to “intimidate” members of Congress. Rannazzisi was eventually replaced at the DEA in 2015 and retired shortly after. He did not reply to multiple requests for comment for this story.
“Rep. Marino has made it very clear he is on the side of opioid manufacturers,” PharmedOut’s Fugh-Berman told IBT. “The bill he supported made it hard for the DEA to go after distributors and wholesalers of drugs. The DEA was having its hands tied even before Trump got into office but this appointment will make things much worse.”
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