Congress has become a puppet for Big Pharma, according to former DEA agent Joe Rannazzisi, who recently told '60 Minutes' that lobbyists have duped federal lawmakers into letting unscrupulous drug distributors flood communities across America with pills that are fuelling the nation's opioid epidemic.
"The drug industry — the manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors and chain drugstores — have an influence over Congress that has never been seen before," Rannazzisi told Bill Whitaker of '60 Minutes.' "And these people came in with their influence and their money and got a whole statute changed because they didn't like it."
That revised statute, according to Rannazzisi, has hobbled the DEA's ability to crack down on the distributors he was investigating for fanning the flames of a drug crisis that has killed more than 200,000 Americans over the last two decades. Rannazzisi's investigation began years ago when he started tracking 'pill mills' — dubious pain clinics where shady doctors write bogus prescriptions for clients to fill at pharmacies that are complicit with the business scheme. "They were just drug dealers in lab coats," he told Whitaker.
One of the most egregious cases is a pharmacy in Kermit, West Virginia that ordered nine million hydrocodone pills over two years even though the small town has a population of just 392 people.
"We were seeing hundreds of bad orders that involved millions and millions of tablets," Rannazzisi recalled. "That's when we started going after the distributors." But instead of reining in the rogue pharmacies, the distributors pushed back against the DEA.
"A distributor's representative told us the problem is not distributors but doctors who overprescribe pain medication, but the distributors know exactly how many pills go to every drug store they supply. And they are required under the Controlled Substances Act to report and stop what the DEA calls 'suspicious orders' — such as unusually large or frequent shipments of opioids."
And when Rannazzisi kept pushing them to do their jobs, the Fortune 500 companies behind those distributors began pressuring the DEA to halt the investigations. Pretty soon, Rannazzisi and other agents had to jump through a lot more hoops than usual before getting the go-ahead with their cases. "So the question is, why would it be any different for these companies as compared to the small mom-and-pops that we had done hundreds of times before? The difference is, they have a lot of money, and a lot of influence."
So much influence that when Rannazzisi refused to back off, they had him removed from his position and worked on passing a law to protect their distributors from federal drug enforcers. "My theory is that the industry through lobbying groups donated — a certain amount of money to politicians to get a law passed that favored the industry. And also maybe using those political ties to have Joe removed," Matt Murphy, who worked for Rannazzisi at the DEA, told '60 Minutes.'
The new law was introduced by Congressman Tom Marino (R-PA) and Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) as a tool to protect patient access to pain medication. But it actually stripped the DEA of the power to go after Big Pharma, according to Rannazzisi.
"If I was gonna write a book about how to harm the United States with pharmaceuticals, the only thing I could think of that would immediately harm is to take the authority away from the investigative agency that is trying to enforce the Controlled Substances Act and the regulations implemented under the act. And that's what this bill did."
Rannazzisi spoke out against the bill when a congressional committee called on him to testify as an expert witness. And Eric Holder, who served as attorney general at the time, warned lawmakers that the legislation could thwart efforts to keep communities safe from deadly drugs. But their words were no match for the $106 million that Big Pharma spent lobbying Congress to pass the bill and other legislation that they said would protect patients from DEA agents that were out of control.
"I just don't understand why Congress would pass a bill that strips us of our authority in the height of an opioid epidemic in places like Congressman Marino's district and Congressman Blackburn's district," Rannazissi said. "Why are these people sponsoring bills, when people in their backyards are dying from drugs that are coming from the same people that these bills are protecting?"
Because Congress, it seems, has more invested in saving bottom lines than American lives.