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Washington Post, 60 Minutes Investigation Finds Bill Helped Fuel Opioid Crisis


I'm Mary Louise Kelly in Washington where in the Rose Garden today President Trump had to defend his nominee to lead the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. That would be the position known as the drug czar.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: As far as Tom Marino - so he was a very early supporter of mine - the great state of Pennsylvania. He's a great guy. I did see the report. We're going to look into the report. We're going to take it very seriously.

KELLY: The president referring there to a new report by The Washington Post and "60 Minutes."


The investigation found that a bill sponsored by Tom Marino and pushed by the drug industry helped pump more painkillers into parts of the country that were already in the middle of the opioid crisis. Scott Higham helped write the story for The Washington Post.

SCOTT HIGHAM: Say a distributor in Ohio or in Michigan was sending pills downstream to pharmacies in Florida. And one month, that pharmacy was ordering 10,000 pills, and the next month, that pharmacy was ordering a hundred thousand pills. Well, that's supposed to be reported to the DEA as a suspicious order. And a lot of these companies were not doing that.

MCEVERS: The Drug Enforcement Agency, the DEA, would call that an imminent threat to a local community and freeze drug shipments from the company's warehouse. Marino's bill changed that standard to an immediate threat, which doesn't sound like a big difference, but it is.

HIGHAM: It's almost impossible to show that a company that is a thousand miles away is posing an immediate threat to a community. Now, they may be able to show that a doctor in your hometown or a pharmacist in your hometown is posing an immediate threat, and they can shut that person down. But the big companies, the distributors and the manufacturers - they're not going to be able to go after them.

MCEVERS: Co-Sponsors of Marino's bill say that DEA enforcement was getting in the way of seniors and veterans, people who legitimately needed painkillers. I mean, is that a valid concern?

HIGHAM: Well, you know, you hear that from time to time. I mean, some of this comes from groups that are funded by the industry, but that's not to diminish that there are people out there who sometimes have trouble getting their medications. But what we're talking about here is the abuse and sale of hundreds of millions of doses of oxycodone and Vicodin to the black market.


HIGHAM: And that's the thing that the DEA was trying to shut down.

MCEVERS: And officials at the DEA opposed these changes for years but eventually backed down. And this bill, you know, in the end sailed through Congress, and President Obama signed it. What happened?

HIGHAM: That's exactly right, Kelly. We've obtained internal memos, emails, other documents from the DEA and from the Justice Department that show that the DEA and the Department of Justice for many years was opposed to this. They had written memos. They had written emails saying this is going to upend our ability to go after these companies. Why are you doing this? And Marino had introduced this legislation in 2014, and the DEA got it killed; and in 2015, and the DEA got it killed.

And then there was a change in leadership. Eric Holder stepped down. Loretta Lynch took over the AG's office. And then there was a new DEA administrator who came in who said that, I think that we need to work with these people. And there was also enormous amounts of pressure being placed on the DEA by Capitol Hill to pass this bill. And it was at the behest of the pharmaceutical industry. In fact, the bill was written by a pharmaceutical industry attorney who used to be a DEA attorney, one of - a senior DEA attorney. So it's, you know, the classic kind of revolving door in Washington.

MCEVERS: Wow. And so what's happened since this bill went into effect?

HIGHAM: So the number of immediate suspension orders has plummeted to zero against major manufacturers and distributors. There have been some immediate suspensions orders filed against smaller companies. But these very big companies, the ones that were backing this bill - they've had no actions taken against them at all.

MCEVERS: Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri said today she will introduce a bill to repeal the Marino law. And Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia wrote a letter to President Trump asking him to withdraw his nomination of Marino as drug czar. Do you think either of these efforts will go anywhere?

HIGHAM: Well, we'll see. Not a lot's happening in Washington these days, as we all know. Our reporting shows that a lot of the members of Congress weren't really aware what was in this bill and what the import of this bill was because it was just passed by unanimous consent, which means that, you know, there's no vote. There's really no debate. They took the word of the leadership that this bill was OK. But you know, we'll have to wait and see what happens. And as far as Mr. Marino's tenure, it's now in the hands of the president.

MCEVERS: Scott Higham of The Washington Post, thanks a lot.

HIGHAM: Thank you, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.