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How drug distributors reportedly hobbled law enforcement from policing the flow of opioids

An investigation by 60 Minutes and the Washington Post alleges that the companies that distribute opioid painkillers to pharmacies and doctors’ offices nationwide persuaded Congress to weaken the DEA’s ability to halt drug distribution at the height of the opioid crisis. Scott Higham of the Washington Post joins William Brangham to discuss the report he co-wrote.

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  • William Brangham:

    While states like New Mexico try everything they can to stem this crisis, there are allegations that major industries at the center of this problem are doing the opposite.

    As John Yang mentioned earlier, a recent investigation by “60 Minutes” and The Washington Post alleges that the companies that distribute opioid painkillers to pharmacies and doctor’s offices nationwide persuaded Congress to hobble law enforcement’s ability to monitor their actions.

    Here’s how a former DEA official described the industry to “60 Minutes” last night.

  • Joseph Rannazzisi, Former Drug Enforcement Administration Official:

    This is an industry that’s out of control. What they want to do is do what they want to do, and not worry about what the law is.

    And if they don’t follow the law in drug supply, people die. That’s just it. People die.

  • William Brangham:

    Scott Higham is an investigative reporter for The Washington Post and co-author of the series that appeared in tandem with that “60 Minutes” story.

    Welcome to the NewsHour.

  • Scott Higham,

    The Washington Post: Thank you.

  • William Brangham:

    Your report really detailed how, at the height of the opioid crisis, this industry, the industry of the people who distribute pharmaceuticals all over the country, persuaded Congress to, in essence, defang the DEA’s ability to monitor what they could do.

    Can you explain what happened in a nutshell?

  • Scott Higham:

    Yes, it’s a pretty impressive feat.

    For many, many years, the way drug distribution works, it’s a little bit complicated, but not too complicated. There are manufacturers at the top of the food chain. In the middle are wholesale distributors, and at the bottom are the doctors and the pharmacies.

    And the DEA was having a really rough time stopping the flow of drugs coming from corrupt doctors and rogue pharmacies, so they decided to attack the distribution level and the wholesalers.

    And they use what they call an immediate suspension order, which immediately shuts down the supply of drugs when they see that a distributor is shipping unusually large amounts of drugs downstream.

    And so in order to get an immediate suspension order, they had to demonstrate that those drugs were causing an imminent threat to the community downstream.

    And what this law does is, it changes that definition to now it’s an immediate threat, and it’s much more difficult for the DEA to prove the drugs coming from a drug distributor 1,000 miles away from a community are posing an immediate threat to that community. They can still show that a pharmacist or a doctor who’s prescribing, overprescribing, is causing an immediate threat to the community.

    But going up the food chain and trying to get an immediate suspension order against a drug distributor or a manufacturer is now, in the words of the DEA’s chief administrative law judge, nearly impossible.

  • William Brangham:, the distribution companies themselves say:

    As you report in your series This is not our fault. We’re not doing this. This is doctors making bad prescribing decisions. Don’t blame us for this.

  • Scott Higham:

    Right.

    Well, this all began because there were a lot of bad doctors and a lot of clinics that were writing prescriptions and filling massive amounts of drugs. The DEA would argue that the drugs that were then being supplied downstream were coming from the distributors and the manufacturers, and they knew exactly how many drugs they were selling.

    So, say, you have a pharmacy in your community that gets 10,000 oxycodone a month, and all of a sudden they’re ordering 100,000, that’s a red flag, and that’s supposed to be reported to the DEA. And that was not happening.

    So the DEA said, you’re not following the law. They warned these distributors repeatedly that they were not following the law, and they said that the distributors continued shipping these drugs, hundreds of millions of doses of drugs downstream.

    And, finally, they started hitting them with immediate suspension orders to stop the flow of those drugs.

  • William Brangham:

    The other thing that your report really highlights is the revolving door in Washington.

    This is something that critics often point to, but this is sort of a textbook example where you had former DEA officials who used to investigate the industry leave government service, and then go work for the very industry they used to investigate.

    In fact, you reported on an allegation that a former DEA official helped write this legislation that took the weapons out of his former industry’s hands.

  • Scott Higham:

    Yes, exactly.

    We received documents through the Freedom of Information Act and also through our sources. One of those documents shows that one of the key lawyers for the DEA then went to industry, joined a law firm, started representing these drug companies, and then he wrote the Marino bill.

    He wrote the early versions of the Marino bill with Tom Marino, who is now the drug czar nominee for the Trump administration.

  • William Brangham:

    You also detail how there seems to be an enormous amount of money going from the industry to the legislators who sponsored this.

    How direct a connection do you think that is?

  • Scott Higham:

    Well, this has been going on in Washington forever.

    We found that at least $1.5 million went to the sponsors and co-sponsors of this legislation. And there weren’t that many of them. There was maybe 22 or so. We also found that the industry overall spent about $100 million lobbying Congress on this bill and other measures.

    So there was a lot of money coming in. Showing a quid pro quo is always very tricky, but companies don’t give money to members of Congress for nothing. They usually want something in return.

  • William Brangham:

    Scott Higham of The Washington Post, thank you and to all your colleagues who worked on this really impressive series. Thank you very much.

  • Scott Higham:

    Thank you very much. Thank you.

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