Who is Responsible for the Opioid Epidemic?

The opioid crisis in America has reached epic proportions. Opioid-related overdoses have claimed the lives of rock stars Prince and Tom Petty, and this epidemic is sweeping across the nation. Opioids are especially dangerous on college campuses, where they are often mixed with marijuana and other drugs. Former Fox News host Eric Bolling lost his son last year to an opioid overdose, and he said he “never saw any signs” that his son had a drug problem.

The Cost of the Opioid Epidemic

The National Institute of Health reports that more than 115 Americans die from opioid overdoses every single day. That translates into almost 42,000 opioid-related deaths each year and accounts for roughly two-thirds of all drug overdose deaths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that opioid-related deaths cost the U.S. economy $78.5 billion each year. This includes the cost of healthcare, treatment for addictions, lost productivity, and involvement with the criminal justice system.

How bad is the opioid crisis? The New York Times reports that drug overdoses from prescription drugs are now the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50, and the second leading cause of death for Americans ages 18-30. To put this in perspective, there are more deaths linked to overdoses of opioids and similar substances than from guns or auto accidents, and the mortality rates are rising rapidly each year.

The death toll from overdoses of opioids and other controlled substances is just the most visible sign of the problem we are facing. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, nearly 100 million Americans took prescription painkillers in 2015, and 12 million took these drugs without a prescription. Millions of Americans have a problem with opioids, and in states like West Virginia, one out of five babies are born with a narcotics addiction and suffer from painful withdrawals during the first few weeks out of the womb.

It is difficult to quantify the overall cost of the opioid crisis, because its tentacles reach into so many areas of our society. Communities have been devasted by the loss of loved ones, and those who are addicted find it difficult to keep a job and cope with life. Another problem is that, as authorities have cracked down on prescription opioid abuse, many addicts have become more dependent on heroin and other illegal drugs. This has swelled prison populations, with a large percentage of inmates having to be placed in detox or withdrawal programs.

How Did We Get Here?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were more than 200,000 opioid-related deaths between 1999 and 2016, and opioid-related deaths were five times higher in 2016 than they were in 1999. Prior to the 1990s, prescription opioid-related deaths were rare, which means that something must have changed during that decade to spawn the crisis. This suggests that the opioid epidemic was preventable, and that one or more parties are responsible. The questions going forward are who is responsible, and what can we do to stop this?

The Washington Post puts much of the blame for the crisis on the big pharmaceutical companies that produce the opioids. They take aim specifically at Purdue Pharma, a multi-billion dollar entity owned by the Sackler family, one of the wealthiest families in America. Purdue Pharma began to aggressively market the drug oxycontin, convincing the FDA that the drug was safe.

In 2001, a Purdue Pharma executive told Congress, “Addiction (to oxycontin) is not common, addiction is rare in the pain patient who is properly managed.”

The FDA approved the drug with a label claiming that it would provide “smooth and sustained” relief for up to 12 hours – a claim that Purdue knew at the time was far from accurate. Shortly after the approval of oxycontin, the head of the FDA, Dr. Curtis Wright, went to work for Purdue Pharma. In 2007, Purdue Pharma pled guilty as a corporation to falsely marketing the drug and was fined $634 million.

There is no doubt that Big Pharma and crooked physicians and pharmacists bear much of the responsibility for the opioid crisis, but the lynchpin that fueled the operation was the distributors. Last year, 60 Minutes interviewed Joe Rannazzisi, a former Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) deputy assistant administrator who saw first-hand how the widespread influence of the distributors corrupted the DEA and compelled Congress to pass legislation that was favorable to the industry, which essentially tied the hands of DEA agents who were trying to reign in the distributors.

The nation’s three largest pharmaceutical distributors – McKesson, Cardinal Health, and AmerisourceBergen control between 85% and 90% of prescription drug distribution in the U.S. Rannazzisi says that as the DEA cracked down on crooked doctors and pharmacists, the death toll from drug overdoses continued to rise. This is when they realized that the distributors were the real “chokepoint”, and they began pursuing them.

In 2008, McKesson Corporation, the country’s largest distributor, was slapped with a $13.2 million fine by the DEA for sending millions of pills through “suspicious” orders. As more fines were levied in subsequent years, the distributors began to fight back. They hired former DEA officials to lobby the agency, and Rannazzisi suddenly found it much more difficult to prosecute cases against the industry.

After three years of lobbying by the drug distributors, Congress passed the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act of 2016, a bill sponsored by Pennsylvania representative Tom Marino and Tennessee representative Marsha Blackburn. This bill made it more difficult for the DEA to crack down on distributors who send large volumes of prescription drugs to crooked pharmacies. Inexplicably, the bill was passed unanimously on a voice vote in both the House and Senate and signed into law without a ceremony by then President Barack Obama.

As the scope of the opioid crisis becomes clearer, many in Congress have moved to repeal the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has also become very proactive and is working closely with many state attorneys general to tackle this crisis. Still, the ties between the pharmaceutical industry and the federal government run deep, and it will be a long fight ahead to curb their influence in Washington.

What Can be Done about the Opioid Crisis?

Important people within the federal government, such as Attorney General Sessions, are finally realizing the magnitude of this crisis and the need for an overwhelming response. There are also many states that are fighting back against the big drug distributors. In West Virginia for example, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has worked closely with the Justice Department to fight drug trafficking, and he has been praised by Sessions for being “tireless in his efforts to combat this crisis from all fronts.”

Back in 2016, while many in Congress were doing the bidding of the drug distribution industry, Attorney General Morrisey filed a lawsuit against McKesson Corporation for violating the state’s Controlled Substances Act. Attorney Lee Javins of Bailey Javins & Carter is one of the attorneys representing the state in this lawsuit.

Attorney Javins has been an aggressive advocate on behalf of the people of West Virginia for over two decades. He has a successful track record standing up for victims in cases involving workplace injury, product liability, personal injury, and consumer litigation. Lee will be one of the attorneys deposing McKesson executives later this month as they prepare for the trial, which is scheduled to begin in April of 2019.

Several other states have filed similar lawsuits against McKesson and the other large pharmaceutical distributors, and they are seeking millions of dollars in damages. This litigation is important, because these distributors must be held accountable for their role in this crisis. If they are not held to account, their egregious practices are likely to continue, putting the lives of more and more Americans in jeopardy.