Saturday | November 18, 2017
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How Congress and special interest money fueled the opioid epidemic

Updated: 
October 18, 2017 - 12:05am

The drug epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s was horrific. It led to draconian laws that helped break already vulnerable families, killed thousands of people, devastated communities and created an image of zombie-like addicts and unrepentant pushers that made it harder for Americans not directly affected by the scourge to empathize with those suffering.

That period is no longer considered the worst drug epidemic in the nation’s history. The ongoing opioid crisis has, unfortunately, taken that title — because no one was lobbying Congress on behalf of crack cocaine dealers the way they have for large drug companies. That’s the devastating finding from a joint investigation by “60 Minutes” and The Washington Post released last weekend. Between 2014 and 2016, the drug industry spent $106 million lobbying Congress for a law that makes it virtually impossible for the DEA to freeze suspicious narcotic shipments from the companies.

By the time the law passed last year, about 200,000 Americans had lost their lives due to opioid overdoses. The number of deaths has risen every year since 2000. That means that at the height of a well-known epidemic that was lowering the life expectancy of working-class Americans for the first time in decades, Congress decided to follow the whims of the drug manufacturers to make it more difficult for the Drug Enforcement Agency to stop the problem at the source.

With opioid abuse raging, the new law “imposed a dramatic diminution of the agency’s authority,” DEA Chief Administrative Law Judge John J. Mulrooney II wrote.

It makes all the talk of compassion for victims emanating from Congress sound hollow, especially considering how Congress also spent much of this year trying to undo the Affordable Care Act, which has been providing needed funds to fight the drug crisis.

The law seemed to be largely the result of a relentless push by Republican Rep. Tom Marino of Pennsylvania — who withdrew his nomination to be the nation’s next drug czar on Tuesday — with strong assists from Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee. A Republican-led Congress passed it on voice vote and the Obama administration signed it into law after the DEA raised no objections — after years of relentless lobbying apparently wore it down. Former Attorney General Eric Holder had warned against the law.

The law came after large drug companies hiring dozens of former DEA investigators and lawyers who knew just how to craft legislation that would make effective enforcement tougher to come by. It’s the latest example of laws and deregulation designed to make it easier for corporations to make more profits while hurting everyday Americans. And this time, the costs can’t be counted only in dollars — but in lives.

This hurts just about every state in the union. Congress must rectify the mess it created by repealing the law.

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