Don’t get me wrong, there should be no drug czar — or any czars, for that matter. However, that doesn’t make the exposé by “60 Minutes” and The Washington Post, which persuaded Rep. Tom Marino to drop his bid to become the next drug czar, any less simplistic or misleading.
Marino was accused of helping the pharmaceutical industry “flood” the United States with “addictive opioids” by co-sponsoring the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act in 2016. The Post declared that the legislation had “effectively stripped the Drug Enforcement Administration of its most potent weapon against large drug companies suspected of spilling prescription narcotics onto the nation’s streets.” Nearly every story regarding the bill now asserts that the law hobbles or undermines the DEA from dealing with the epidemic.
A number of reporters in my social media feed were especially enthusiastic about the article. The purity of the drug czar seat had been saved! This, they explained, was why journalism still mattered. One hopes not, considering how the article illustrates that a trumped-up non-story can drive coverage on important issues.
For starters, there is absolutely nothing new here. The stories were driven, it seems, by Joe Rannazzisi, a disgruntled former high-ranking DEA drug warrior, who claimed that his “total disbelief” at the Marino nomination prompted him to act. This is false. Rannazzisi isn’t a brave new figure emerging to put an end to injustice. He’s certainly not a “whistleblower,” which implies he’s exposing some illicit or hidden activity.
At the time of the bill signing, Rannazzisi was all over the news griping about the very same things that are supposedly eye-opening today. The Washington Post itself reported all of Rannazzisi’s claims last year. In 2014, Marino and Rep. Marsha Blackburn called for a federal investigation into misconduct, accusing Rannazzisi of bullying legislators and accusing the co-sponsors of the bill of “supporting criminals.” Seems pertinent to his supposed “whistleblowing.”
Moreover, the industry openly lobbied and argued for the bill. The DEA signed off on the bill. As did the Justice Department. No major anti-drug organization, as far as I can tell, complained about the bill. The Senate version of the bill was cosponsored by Orrin Hatch and Sheldon Whitehouse. It then passed by unanimous consent in both the House and Senate. It was signed by Barack Obama.
All this was before the predominant motivation of American journalism was to sink every Trump nominee. Back then, Rannazzisi was portrayed as a person with an opinion rather than a hero. Back then, the bill he opposed, which ensures a modicum of evidence exists before allowing the DEA to deny sick Americans their pain-reducing medication, was not painted in quite as simplistic terms.
Before passage of the law, the DEA could, for basically any reason it chose, suspend the prescribing or supplying of opioids if they decided that was a public health threat — punishing thousands of legitimate users because someone their in community might be abusing prescriptions. The bill Marino supported defined “imminent danger” as the “substantial likelihood of an immediate threat that death, serious bodily harm, or abuse of a controlled substance will occur.” I’m still searching for any reputable organization that opposed that standard.
It’s not unexpected that Rannazzisi, who ran the DEA’s Office of Diversion Control, or other hardcore drug warriors would advocate the DEA act without any genuine oversight. But I doubt there is a single liberal opinion page in the country that would support similar standards from a police force in their community, no matter what epidemic the cops claim to be fighting. Yet, because of a worrying spike in overdoses — or, more likely, because no one wants to accidentally fall on the side of the greedy capitalists — there seems to be widespread agreement that the DEA can’t do its job without unrestrained authority.
Where is the evidence for this? As we’ve seen, states that did crack down on pain-management clinics for prescribing too many opioids saw heroin deaths spike. Certainly, opioid overdoses, prescribed and not, had spiked long before anyone “stripped” the DEA of the ability to act. Rannazzisi has been complaining about this problem for at least ten years. All that time the DEA was empowered with the lower standard he supports, yet we saw the biggest spikes in drug overdoses ever. Meanwhile, the DEA cut opioid production in 2017. It is likely to do the same in 2018. Addiction and depression are complex societal problems that, as we’ve seen, often have a lot more to do with exposure to drugs.
Yet most of coverage of the Marino story surrenders to a lazy narrative that pits greed over lives and the drug industry against the DEA. It simply assumes that the DEA needs more authority to be successful. The “60 Minutes”/Washington Post reporting has already cowed a bunch of politicians — Joe Manchin and Claire McCaskill being the worst of the lot; but, then again, reelection beckons for them — into supporting proposals that would reinstate failed DEA policies. Meanwhile they all forget these drugs help millions of Americans live more bearable lives. It’s something that might be worth considering before advocating for the DEA to circumvent basic standards of proof and due process.