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All About the Money in the Pharmaceutical Industry: The Opioid Epidemic Exposed

It’s shocking how big of a problem opioid abuse has become thanks to the pharmaceutical industry. In 2015 alone, 20.5 million Americans struggled with a substance abuse problem. 20 million of which were addicted to prescription painkillers while 500,000 were addicted to heroin and other types of street drugs. Although the numbers are incredible, what’s even more shocking is how this epidemic came to be, and the parties behind it.

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Who exactly is behind this epidemic?

Surprisingly, it’s not the drug dealers standing on busy street corners who are heavily pushing opioids. In fact, drug dealers aren’t even the main profiteers in this lucrative business. According to whistle blower Joe Rannazzisi, the main culprits are Congress, lobbyists and the drug distribution industry, which includes medical professionals like doctors, nurses and surgeons. These groups provide hundreds of millions of opioid pills to pain clinics and rogue pharmacies, and get the drugs into American hands. This has fueled an opioid addiction crisis all across America over the past two decades. In total, this crisis has claimed over 200,000 lives.

Who Is Joe Rannazzisi?

With such bold claims, it’s vital that the whistleblower’s credentials are legitimate. Joe Rannazzisi’s credentials are as good as it gets. For decades, Rannazzisi was the frontman for the government’s war against opioids. He was the head of the Office of Diversion Control for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and had a degree in law and pharmacy. His main job responsibilities included, but were not limited to, cracking down on drug distributors who did not follow the nation’s prescription drug laws. He actively went against doctors, lobbyists, drug manufacturers, pharmacies and more. His aggressive tactics caused him to be pushed out from his position by Congress. Nowadays, Rannazzisi is an advocate for tougher prescription drug laws.

How the Death Toll and Addiction Rates Continued to Rise

To understand how opioid use became such a widespread issue, it’s important to go back to the beginning. Opioids were first introduced to Americans in the late 1990s. Drug companies pitched these painkillers as a routine medical treatment used to treat chronic pain. They assured physicians, congressional investigators and other distributors that the pain medications were completely safe. Although this is far from the truth, many doctors were unfortunately convinced. Prescriptions for opioid painkillers skyrocketed thanks to the effectiveness of the drugs. The drugs were, and still are, in high demand. Patients prescribed opioids quickly became addicted. To maintain their addiction, they turned to shady pill mills after their treatment. Shady pain clinics would randomly pop up beside highways during this time. Patients who could no longer afford them turned to street drugs, like heroin, instead. In the beginning, the dangers of opioids were not properly disclosed. Americans were blind to what would come next. More physicians prescribed opioids, and more and more Americans became addicted. Tolerance to opioids is easy to build. The more patients took, the higher their tolerance grew. Patients with a large tolerance would take larger dosages. The higher dosages quickly became fatal. Opioid use, addiction rates and overdoses have now become a national crisis. Even today, many doctors still prescribe opioids for chronic pain management. Overdose rates have also steadily increased. In 2015 alone, there were 52,404 overdoses, and these numbers continue to rise each year.

The Difficulties with Cracking Down the Pharmaceutical Industry

So, if we know what the problem is, why is it so hard to crack down on the pharmaceutical industry that’s responsible? According to Rannazzisi, the answer lies in both poor opioid prescription regulations and in the tremendous power that pharmaceutical companies have. Many factors contribute to the difficulties involved with cracking down the pharmaceutical industry. On top of that, many agencies, like the DEA, have their hands tied when it comes to making a difference.

A Look at the Poor Regulations

The DEA has attempted to place regulations on prescription opioid use. To control the supply, distributors are to report “suspicious orders” to the DEA. Sadly, many fail to do so, citing an inability to determine what is “suspicious”. As the DEA does not have enforced guidelines on what is “suspicious”, the companies get away with it. Although “suspicious activity” is subjective, some extremes are hard to ignore. One example is Kermit, West Virginia. It is a small town with just 392 people. Without raising red flags, this small town successfully ordered nine million pills over the course of two years. Another regulation issue is that the DEA does not impose quotas on the amount of opioids each pharmaceutical company can manufacture. Without any set guidelines, there are many exploitable loopholes. The result is that large quantities of prescription opioids still flood the markets. Still, the DEA has had successful attempts in regulating the market in the past. In 2008, the DEA slapped a fine of $13.2 million on McKesson, and a fine of $34 million on Cardinal Health. Both are major pharmaceutical companies.

Good Legal Representation

Although you’d think that the fines would stop the companies in their tracks, it didn’t. To retaliate, they hired some of the best legal representation money can buy. Despite the DEA’s best attempts, legal representation sidetracks a lot of cases. Large pharmaceutical companies often hire big-shot lawyers to represent their cases. These lawyers bog down the legal system, making it much harder for the DEA to build a successful case. Prosecutions needed more evidence before they could lay charges. Good legal representation had an alarming effect on how cases were being dealt with. The number of immediate suspension orders levied against drug distributors plummeted. In 2011, 65 immediate suspension orders were levied. By 2016, this number has dropped down to only 8. Unfortunately, these numbers still continue to drop. Many DEA agents feel helpless in making a difference.

Effective Lobby Efforts

Opioid sales rake in large sums of money, so pharmaceutical companies have both the funds and the means to lobby against the government. Their efforts may encourage the passing of certain bills that give them more leeway and room to move. For example, a bill introduced in the House by Pennsylvania Congressman Tom Marino and Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee ensures that patients will always have access to pain medication. Although this bill seems beneficial on the surface, it does more harm than good. It strips the government from the ability to immediately freeze suspicious shipments. Agencies, like the DEA, are less able to keep prescription narcotics off the streets.

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Initiatives Taken by Certain Pharmacies

Although the government’s hands are tied, some pharmacies recognize the dangers of opioid use. CVS, for example, isn’t taking a passive role any longer, and has decided to take a public stance on the issue. In February 2018, CVS announced that some opioid prescriptions would be limited to a 7-day supply only. As CVS services over 90 million patients, their hope is that this will put a stop to the growing opioid epidemic and opioid misuse. They’ve also stepped up to the plate in many other ways. CVS require their pharmacists to educate patients on the growing dangers of opioid use before filling a prescription. They’ve also built a Pharmacists Teach Program to raise awareness on this issue. With large pharmacies standing up for what’s right, there may still be hope.

What You Can Do

Much like CVS, you too can make a difference. Put an end to the opioid epidemic by:

  • Avoiding the use of opioid prescription painkillers
  • Educating yourself and your family about the dangers of prescription opioids
  • Seeking help for those who are already addicted
  • Supporting organizations that are trying to make a difference

If you or someone you know has an opioid addiction, it’s time to face the monster head on. There are plenty of resources out there that can help you. Figure out withdrawal timelines and more, like how to detox at home. Opioid recovery centers can help you withdraw comfortably and quickly. The medical supervision also ensures your safety.

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Stop the Opioid Epidemic in Its Tracks

It’s time to stand up to large pharmaceutical companies, and stop them from profiting off of this epidemic. Thanks to whistleblowers like Joe Rannazzisi, the truth is now out there. The pharmaceutical companies’ bad business practices have become common knowledge. Congress is being held accountable for their role. If patients and doctors stand hand in hand, they can make a difference, and put an end to all the sorrows and pains that come with an opioid addiction. It’s time to stop the opioid epidemic dead in its tracks.