October 16, 2017

A joint investigation with CBS 60 Minutes and the Washington Post uncovered how Big Pharma rewrote the enforcement rules the DEA used to fight the opioid epidemic. Morning Joe talked to Washington Post reporter Scott Higham, who co-wrote the story with Lenny Bernstein.

Higham talked about Joseph T. Rannazzis, a DEA whistleblower.

"My partner on this story, Lenny Bernstein, was trying to get answers to questions about why so many people were dying from opioid overdoses and where were all these drugs coming from. A lot of phone calls, kind of gumshoe reporting, checking out court records, calling as many people as he could," he said.

"He came across this guy who had been forced out of his job at the dea, Joe Rannazzis. He ran the division that oversees the pharmaceutical industry at the DEA. He felt that he could not do his job at the height of this epidemic and he was forced out of his job in the face of intense pressure from the pharmaceutical industry on Capitol hill That was reaching into the DEA, that was reaching into the Department of Justice.

"We began to interview other people out in the field, DEA investigators, men, women, very dedicated investigators, who said that their cases were being slowed down. So suddenly, we found ourselves kind of in the middle of seeing the opioid wars from the front war between the DEA and the pharmaceutical industry and members of Congress, and the DEA was losing, shockingly."

Higham said the epidemic began with internet pharmacies, but as soon as those were shut down, pain clinics began to pop up "everywhere."

"You pay $200, $300 for a prescription and walk out with a vial of oxycodone. Parking lots in South Florida, all across the country, were just filled with drug dealers, drug users, people in vans and beat-up cars and driving down I-75 from West Virginia, Ohio to get their drugs and bring them and selling them on the street for great profit," he said.

"A lot of people got rich. All the way from drug dealers on the streets, all the way up to the pharmaceutical companies. This is a $13 billion a year industry. A lot of people were making a lot of money. A lot of people were turning a blind eye to what was happening."

He said they found that the pharmaceutical industry wrote the bill that prevented the DEA from shutting down pharmaceutical manufacturers.

"Lobbyists write a lot of legislation. and a lot of times it doesn't have a huge impact. but to write a piece of legislation at the height of the opioid epidemic that takes away the most important enforcement tool takes your breath away," he said.

Rep. Tom Merino (R-PA) was the principal sponsor of the legislation, he said.

"It was written by an industry lawyer. And basically the DEA's most effective enforcement tool is something called the immediate suspension order. Those are used for times when there are companies that are sending downstream hundreds of millions of pills unchecked and the DEA steps in and says enough is enough. We're shutting you down.

"So this law changes the definition of imminent threat. So companies now -- in the past, imminent threat meant, you know, the DEA could go in and shut down a company. Now it's an 'immediate' threat. And that's a very, very difficult bar to meet."

He said their reporting shows that many members of Congress didn't really understand what this bill did.

"They thought that it would do what the title says and that's ensure patient access, improve drug enforcement. I don't think people read this bill and quite understood exactly what it would do.

"The lawyers who wrote this knew exactly what they were doing. They changed the language ever so slightly, but language matters in law."

Oh, and Tom Merino? Trump has nominated him to become the nation's next drug czar.

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