Joe Rannazzisi, came to DEA headquarters after he worked as an agent in Detroit, where he watched prescription drugs flood small towns and cities in the Midwest. Hundreds of millions of pain pills, such as Vicodin and oxycodone, ended up in the hands of dealers and illegal users. Rogue doctors wrote fraudulent prescriptions for enormous numbers of pills, and complicit pharmacists filled them without question, often for cash. Internet pharmacies, supplied by drug distribution companies, allowed users to obtain drugs without seeing a doctor.
As a now former employee of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), he said in an interview that efforts to stem and slow down the opioid epidemic in the United States were derailed by pressure from large pharmaceutical companies and Congress.
Joe Rannazzisi told “60 Minutes” that large distributors, including Cardinal Health, McKesson and Amerisource Bergen, allowed opioids to be obtained by rogue pharmacies and pain clinics, which then prescribed them to Americans who had no real need for them.
As the opioid epidemic slowly worsened, Rannazzisi, who at the time was the head of the DEA’s Office of Diversion Control, said he helped launch a crackdown on the companies, which included hitting them with heavy fines. And they did. The DEA would ultimately bring at least 17 cases against 13 drug distributors and one manufacturer. The government said it assessed nearly $425 million in fines over a decade. Those fines reflect only a small portion of the hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue the companies receive each year.
Big Pharma and Congress
Rannazzisi said the big pharma industry just used money and influence to pressure lawyers at the Department of Justice, which oversees the DEA, to go easy on the companies. Joe also said his superiors called him to have him explain what his motives were. “And it infuriated me that I was over there, trying to explain what my motives were or why I was going after these corporations?” Rannazzisi said in the interview.
Big Pharma and Congress Push for New Legislation
Rannazzisi’s efforts were further hindered in 2013, when a new piece of legislation, written by a former DEA agent; Linden Barber, who was now working as a lawyer for Big Pharma, began making its way through congress. When Barber went to work for the drug industry in 2011, he brought an intimate knowledge of the DEA’s strategy and how it could be attacked to protect the companies. He was one of dozens of DEA officials recruited by the drug industry during the past decade.
(Since the DEA started to crack down on the opioid industry a decade ago, pharmaceutical companies and the law firms that represent them have hired at least 46 DEA officials — 32 of them directly from the division. They included two officials who managed day-to-day operations; the deputy director of the division; the deputy chief of operations; and two chiefs of policy.)
Barber played a key role in crafting an early version of the legislation that would eventually curtail the DEA’s power, according to an internal email written by a Justice Department official to a colleague. “He wrote the Marino bill,” the official wrote in 2014.
According to the “60 Minutes” report, the bill introduced in the House by Rep, Tom Marino (R-Pa.) and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), stripped the DEA of it ability to stop shipments of suspicious narcotics—an essential tool used by the DEA to combat the spread of opioids.
The law was the crowning achievement of a campaign by the drug industry to weaken aggressive DEA enforcement efforts against drug distribution companies that were supplying corrupt doctors and pharmacists who peddled narcotics to the black market. Big pharma worked behind the scenes with lobbyists and key members of Congress, pouring more than a million dollars into their election campaigns.
The new law makes it virtually impossible for the DEA to freeze suspicious narcotic shipments from the companies, due to the need for them to be an “imminent danger.” According to internal agency and Justice Department documents and an independent assessment by the DEA’s chief administrative law judge in a soon-to-be-published law review article, that powerful tool to freeze shipments had allowed the agency to immediately prevent drugs from reaching the street.
Besides, the sponsors and co-sponsors of the bill, few lawmakers knew the true impact the law would have. It sailed through Congress and was passed by unanimous consent, a parliamentary procedure reserved for bills considered to be noncontroversial. The White House was equally unaware of the bill’s import when President Barack Obama signed it into law, according to interviews with former senior administration officials.
Rannazzisi, who publicly opposed the bill, drew the ire of Marino and Blackburn, who called the DOJ to investigate him for trying to “intimidate the United States Congress,” according to “60 Minutes.” Ranazzisis was eventually stripped of his responsibilities with the DEA and resigned according to the report.
“We were totally focused on all these people dying and all these drugs being diverted. And — and we were not really looking at our flanks, waiting for someone to come after us. So maybe that was my fault,” Rannazzisi said in the interview.
Drug industry officials and experts blame the origins of the opioid crisis on the over-prescribing of pain pills by doctors. The industry notes that the DEA approves the total amount of opioids produced each year which has led to increase in addiction and users attending drug treatment centers.
Industry officials also defended the new law as an effort to ensure that legitimate pain patients receive their medication without disruption. The industry had long complained that federal prescription drug laws were too vague about the responsibility of companies to report suspicious orders of narcotics. The industry also complained that the DEA communicated poorly with companies — citing a 2015 report by the Government Accountability Office — and was too punitive when narcotics were diverted out of the legal drug distribution chain.
However, the DEA said in a statement last week that it is still pursuing reckless doctors and rogue businesses with a wide variety of tools.
“We will continue fighting the opioid crisis and continue to use all the tools at our disposal to combat this epidemic,” the statement said.