In 2016, at least 1,631 Tennesseans died from opioid overdoses, more people than died from car accidents or gunshots in the state. Because many of Tennessee’s counties are unable to keep up with the costs of the increasing number of autopsies, many deaths go without investigation, and the real number of opioid related casualties is likely significantly higher than what’s reported.
For many of those who die of opioid overdose, their relationship with addiction begins with prescription pills; 80% of all new heroin users began with prescription opioids. In 2015, there were more prescriptions for opioids written in Tennessee than there were people living in the state. That’s 7.8 million prescriptions in one year, with enough pills being shipped in to meet that demand.
Three main drug distributors—AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, and McKesson—control about 90% of the national distribution market, generating more than $400 billion in revenue last year alone. These drug distributors were and are shipping millions of opioid pills into towns with populations comprising only thousands of people or less. These Fortune 500 companies prefer to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in fines than comply with the Controlled Substances Act and report dealers in lab coats who are dispensing far more pills than there are people. These companies are glorified drug cartels, raking in profits off the American opioid epidemic.
Yet in 2014, Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) introduced and co-sponsored the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act, a bill that essentially eliminated the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) power to go after massive drug distribution corporations that were knowingly shipping obscene and illegal quantities of opioids into pharmacies and pill mills across the country.
At the peak of the American opioid epidemic, an epidemic that continues to reach new heights, Rep. Blackburn’s bill terminated the DEA’s authority to halt shipments that mass drug distributors were knowingly sending to corrupt providers, allowing them to continue selling opioids and peddling pills into the black market. DEA internal memos at the time said that this bill “would constitute perhaps the greatest reduction in the Attorney General’s authority under the Controlled Substances Act since the Act’s passage in 1970.”
In fact, many of the drug distribution companies lobbying for the bill were, at the time, under investigation by the DEA for knowingly shipping millions of pills to corrupt providers. But when Joseph Ranazzissi, who was running the DEA’s division for drug industry regulation, told Rep. Blackburn and the other sponsors that the bill would protect defendants currently under investigation, she demanded that the Justice Department’s inspector general investigate him for trying to “intimidate the United States Congress.” Ranazzissi, one of the most effective investigators involved in combating the opioid epidemic, ended up being removed from his management role, and with a destroyed career, retired from the DEA.
Together, the drug industry spent $106 million over two years lobbying Congress in support of favorable legislation, including the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act. After the bill passed, Rep. Blackburn collected a $120,000 campaign contribution from the pharmaceutical industry. She has recently announced her 2018 bid for Tennessee’s U.S. Senate seat.
Meanwhile, opioid deaths have continued to rise each year in Tennessee and the state’s Attorney General has had to rush to fill the enforcement gap left by Blackburn’s bill.
Last month, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery, along with 40 other state Attorney Generals, issued subpoenas to the three major drug distributors in an investigation into whether or not they have been illegally marketing and distributing their products.
These massive corporations illegally raking in hundreds of billions of dollars off the American opioid epidemic are no better than foreign drug cartels. And the politicians who enable them are just as corrupt as their counterparts in all the other parts of the world where money talks and the vulnerable suffer the consequences.