16 states pass harsher punishments for addicts while big pharma gets off the hook

The fear of being prosecuted often prevents addicts from seeking help.

Jan 21, 2018

Photo courtesy of BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / Staff/ via Getty Images

According to a 2017 report from Vox, 16 states have passed laws which institute harsher punishments around opioids at the height of the epidemic. In Kentucky, for example, one of the hardest hit states and the home of the DEA’s new field office for opioids, Governor Matt Bevin signed HB 333 into law last year increasing penalties for those who traffic heroin and fentanyl and preventing reduced penalties for those who can prove that they are addicted to the substance.

The real world effect of these laws is seen in cases like that of Gwendolyn Prebish from Philadelphia. She is charged with the murder of a friend, Michael Pastorino, for supplying him with a drug they were both hooked on. According to a Slate report, police discovered Prebish’s number on Pastorino’s phone and traced the heroin and fentanyl that caused Pastorino’s overdose to her.

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Gwendolyn Prebish was charged for supplying heroin to a friend. She got hooked on heroin after being prescribed legal opioids. 

The report goes on to detail that Prebish was a fellow addict and a frequent user of heroin but not a trafficker. More importantly, the circumstances which lead to her heroin use and addiction to opioids were the result of the legal drug market.

In the wake of an abusive relationship which resulted in broken bones, torn muscles, and a collapsed lung, doctors prescribed Prebish opioids for her pain. According to Prebish, the drugs “helped numb all of my sad and anxious feelings,” she wrote to Slate, “The opioids put me in a state of euphoria and I finally felt I was good for something.”

Prebish’s story about opioids is just one of the many casualties of an unchecked prescription drug system coupled with flawed policy. According to the Bureau of Justice, 70 percent of drug traffickers are also users of the drug they peddle and a briefing paper produced by Human Rights Watch argues that harsher punishments for drug crimes discourage those who are addicted from seeking help. The fear of being prosecuted often prevents those who are addicted from receiving anti-addiction medications like Naloxone as well as access to clean needles which can prevent the spread of HIV.

And while law enforcement has brought charges against everyone from street dealers to doctors who prescribed opioids, former DEA agents have expressed frustration that the bigger players in the epidemic have slipped through the cracks. As former narcotics agent Joe Rannazzisi told 60 Minutes in October, when the DEA tried to go after the largest distributors of opioids, McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen, they encountered roadblocks put up by Congress and the Justice Department.

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ANNANDALE, VA – SEPTEMBER 19: Joseph Rannazzisi is a former chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) Office of Diversion Control, Tuesday, September 19, 2017, in Annandale, VA. With the DEA, Rannazzisi was senior executive in charge of pharmaceutical and synthetic drugs and chemical investigations. He said, ‘Congress passed a bill that prevented me from going after large pharmaceutical companies…while thousands of people were dying. Basically, protecting the industry’ as drug companies developed and carried out a sophisticated plan to protect their share of the $13 billion painkiller industry. (photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images) Photo courtesy of The Washington Post / Contributor/ via Getty Images)

“[A]ided by Congress,” the 60 Minutes investigation found, “lobbyists, and a drug distribution industry…” provided “the rocket fuel for a crisis that, over the last two decades, has claimed 200,000 lives.”

Their punishment? For McKesson, their failure to report suspicious shipments of opioids was settled with a $13.2 million fine in 2008.

When the DEA attempted to bring them to account, “The companies cried foul and complained to Congress that DEA regulations were vague and the agency was treating them like a foreign drug cartel,” The 60 Minutes/WaPo report stated.

In the DEA’s most recent investigation of McKesson, which continued its shady practices after their initial fine, local investigators sought a $1 billion fine and a halt to the company’s distribution licenses in all affected counties.

Instead, the Department of Justice settled on $150 million with no suspension of operations. And while this seems like a steep fine for any company, consider the fact that it’s only slightly more than its CEO alone makes in a year as the 12th largest corporation in the world with an annual revenue of nearly $200 billion.

“This is an industry that allowed millions and millions of drugs to go into bad pharmacies and doctors’ offices,” said Rannazzisi, “that distributed them out to people who had no legitimate need for those drugs.”

Across all distributors since 2010, fines have totaled $341 million with no leader at any company jailed for distributing massive amounts of opioids which have resulted in addiction and death on a massive scale. If punishment is really the answer, then it’s a double-standard to only criminalize people at the bottom of the supply chain.

Jan 21, 2018