Trump’s Pick For Drug Czar Hauled In Thousands Of Dollars From Drug Distributors He Wrote Bill To Protect
B JOSH KEEFE @THEJOSHKEEFE ON 04/14/17 AT 5:00 AM
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.”
Read more here.
by Adam Tschorn
Fashion brands have a long history of leveraging the party scene around the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival (which this year runs April 14-16 and 21-23) into brand-building buzz, but this year, the likes of Jeremy Scott, Levi Strauss & Co., Sephora and Hudson Jeans will find themselves in the company of upscale California cannabis brands trying to reach a coveted consumer base.
Because festival rules forbid drugs (including, according to the event’s website, cannabis use by medical marijuana cardholders), most of the canna-branding is set to take place at private (and undisclosed-to-the-public) events taking place within 20 miles of the Empire Polo Club grounds in Indio, where Coachella takes place. However, at least one company has hinted that it might engage in a guerrilla-style giveaway of pre-rolled joints to over-21 festival-goers. (E-mails to festival organizers seeking confirmation of the policy and comment on the presence of cannabis brands at and around the festival were unanswered as of this morning.)
One such event is Green Oasis, a cannabis gifting experience organized by Susan Soares. “My audience is the Town & Country audience, the Vanity Fair audience,” Soares said, explaining that she works directly with band managers and agents to get cannabis-related brands face-time with some of the festival’s top talent. According to Soares, one of the bands that stopped by in 2015 came right from the festival’s main stage and, in 2016, British band the 1975 were in the house to learn about product and policy.
The AnnaBís Lady G bag ($245) will be part of the marijuana-related merchandise filling the gift bags at the Green Oasis taking place during Coachella's second weekend. (Mark Leet)
This year’s Green Oasis is scheduled for the second week of the festival (the past two years, it’s taken place on the first weekend), and Soares expects to be at capacity, gifting 300 C.A.R.E. (Cannabis Awareness Research and Events) packages filled with about $2,500 worth of merchandise, including marijuana in its various forms (flower, vapes and edibles) and accouterments. One of the SoCal brands on board is AnnaBís, a handbag line aimed at the upscale female cannabis consumer, which is gifting its $245 Lady G festival-appropriate bag.
Read more here.
APRIL 10, 2017 BY DOUG PORTER 2 COMMENTS
By Doug Porter
It turns out that Making America Great Again involves rolling back drug policy and enforcement to the 1960s.
The first step in such a reversal involves denying science. The second step involves ginning up the racism. The final step involves reviving mass incarceration.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions made it clear in a speech in Richmond, Va on March 15, that enforcement is now the primary tool in responding to drug abuse, and, apparently, casual use.
I realize this may be an unfashionable belief in a time of growing tolerance of drug use. But too many lives are at stake to worry about being fashionable. I reject the idea that America will be a better place if marijuana is sold in every corner store. And I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana – so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful. Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs will destroy your life.
While nobody I’m aware of is advocating for selling pot in corner stores, there is evidence, via a UCSD study suggesting medical marijuana legalization can reduce opioid-related hospitalizations. A 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that states with medical marijuana laws have lower death rates from opiate overdose.
The Trump administration’s approach to this sort of research–and research in general–has been proposals to cut funding.
He wants to cut NIH funding by $1.2 billion this year. Next year, under his proposed budget, the agency’s budget would be slashed by another $5.8 billion. Trump’s aides have defended the cuts, and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said the government has long been wasting money on overhead for universities and other institutions that receive NIH grants. But researchers across the country have warned of devastating consequences if Trump’s proposed cuts were actually enacted.
A Bi-Polar Approach
As the Atlantic’s City Lab points out, the Trump administration appears to have a “split personality” where it comes to drug policy.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been appointed to head up a commission on combating drug addiction. For all his other faults, Christie does have a track record for a humane approach toward dealing with drug addiction.
This contrasts with the tough guy attitude embodied in Sessions’ pronouncements.
City Lab quotes the Wall Street Journal:
The tug of war in the new administration reflects its two different constituencies: traditional conservatives, who favor a crackdown on crime that the president frequently links to illegal immigration and urban areas, and the white, working-class and rural communities who welcome a compassionate focus on the opioid epidemic that has ravaged their neighborhoods.
…And goes on to say:
Translation: White people will get rehabilitation. Black and Latino people will get incarceration.
Or, as the Drug Policy Alliance deputy director Michael Collins said in the WSJ article: “We’re seeing the beginning of a new war on drugs.”
While origins of the “other” narrative in drug disparagement go all the way back to the middle ages, it is bound up in US history with responses to immigration and racial subjugation.
Read more here.
By Sari Horwitz April 8 at 8:32 PM
When the Obama administration launched a sweeping policy to reduce harsh prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, rave reviews came from across the political spectrum. Civil rights groups and the Koch brothers praised Obama for his efforts, saying he was making the criminal justice system more humane.
But there was one person who watched these developments with some horror. Steven H. Cook, a former street cop who became a federal prosecutor based in Knoxville, Tenn., saw nothing wrong with how the system worked — not the life sentences for drug charges, not the huge growth of the prison population. And he went everywhere — Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox News, congressional hearings, public panels — to spread a different gospel.
“The federal criminal justice system simply is not broken. In fact, it’s working exactly as designed,” Cook said at a criminal justice panel at The Washington Post last year.
The Obama administration largely ignored Cook, who was then president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys. But he won’t be overlooked anymore.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has brought Cook into his inner circle at the Justice Department, appointing him to be one of his top lieutenants to help undo the criminal justice policies of Obama and former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. As Sessions has traveled to different cities to preach his tough-on-crime philosophy, Cook has been at his side.
Sessions has yet to announce specific policy changes, but Cook’s new perch speaks volumes about where the Justice Department is headed.
Law enforcement officials say that Sessions and Cook are preparing a plan to prosecute more drug and gun cases and pursue mandatory minimum sentences. The two men are eager to bring back the national crime strategy of the 1980s and ’90s from the peak of the drug war, an approach that had fallen out of favor in recent years as minority communities grappled with the effects of mass incarceration.
Crime is near historic lows in the United States, but Sessions says that the spike in homicides in several cities, including Chicago, is a harbinger of a “dangerous new trend” in America that requires a tough response.
“If there was a flickering candle of hope that remained for sentencing reform, Cook’s appointment was a fire hose,” said Ring, of FAMM. “There simply aren’t enough backhoes to build all the prisons it would take to realize Steve Cook’s vision for America.”
Sessions is also expected to take a harder line on the punishment for using and distributing marijuana, a drug he has long abhorred. His crime task force will review existing marijuana policy, according to a memo he wrote prosecutors last week. Using or distributing marijuana is illegal under federal law, which classifies it as a Schedule 1 drug, the same category as heroin, and considered more dangerous than cocaine and methamphetamine.
In his effort to resurrect the practices of the drug war, it is still unclear what Sessions will do about the wave of states that have legalized marijuana in recent years. Eight states and the District of Columbia now permit the recreational use of marijuana, and 28 states and the District have legalized the use of medical marijuana.
But his rhetoric against weed seems to get stronger with each speech. In Richmond, he cast doubt on the use of medical marijuana and said it “has been hyped, maybe too much.”
Read more here.
The Coachella music event has been called a drug festival with music in the background. The event's official policy does not allow drugs, drug paraphernalia as well as outside food and beverages (aka, a "please drink curated, expensive alcoholic drinks" policy). That said, drugabuse.com did an Instagram search for drug terms and music festivals and Coachella ranked third for drug mentions. Forty-six percent of the mentions at Coachella were for marijuana, with 12% for cocaine.
However, the fine folks at Coachella do not want to be associated with the mentions of marijuana. Even though it is located in California and the state has legalized medicinal marijuana and is currently establishing adult use marijuana, the festival is just saying no.
Santa Barbara-based Lowell Herb Co. wanted to celebrate the music festival as it does other events and created a Coachella blend of pre-rolled joints. The festival's organizers were not amused and sent the local farm a cease and desist letter. They want them to quit using the name and stop offering a marijuana flower crown. Coachella even went so far as to say they can't promote their products on social media using #Coachella.
“We make special blends all the time,” said one of the co-owners, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the pending legal situation with Coachella. “We do a spring blend. We did an election blend. I mean Coachella is also a place. It's like Denver saying no one can serve a Denver omelet because they own the name.” The co-owner also wondered how anyone could try to control the use of a hashtag. He said they offered to be a sponsor of the event, but got no response.
“We're just a farm. We can't fight a big corporation. So, it will be renamed the music festival blend,” he said. “They seem very nice and we hope we can work something out.” The co-owner mused that for all the event's counter-culture image, it is purely a profit making enterprise.
That attitude though isn't stopping other local events or companies from targeting marijuana-loving festival goers.
Ardent Cannabis is also capitalizing on Coachella. “Ardent will be participating in the Green Oasis gifting suite with our instant topical infusions," said Ardent CEO Shanel Lindsay. "Coachella and other prominent music festivals offer us the ability to introduce the Ardent line of natural, luxury skin care products to a new set influencers and hopefully future brand ambassadors.” Unlike Lowell Farms, she had no issues with organizers and partnering with the event producers.
Read more here.
Susan Soares has written for Cannabis Now Magazine, Alternet, and Sensi Magazine.