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Drug industry swims in Washington's swamp

By Clarence Page, Tribune Content Agency on

Well, that was quick. President Donald Trump announced Tuesday morning that his pick to be drug czar, Rep. Tom Marino, had withdrawn from consideration after media reports revealed his role in passing a new law that has eased opioid distribution.

Marino's departure seemed inevitable after the lukewarm endorsement President Trump gave him when questioned about the reports in a joint investigation by CBS' "60 Minutes" and the Washington Post. Trump called Marino, a Pennsylvania Republican, a "great guy" and a "very early supporter" of his. But he also said that if he found that Marino's appointment would hurt the fight against opioid addiction, he would "make a change."

The next morning, changes were made. No countercharges of "fake news" or "lying media." Trump moved swiftly to remove the problem and move on.

But not so fast. More than most of the controversies that have tested this president, the opioid crisis tragically plagues some of the most desperate communities in Trump's political base. To voters who turned in good faith to Trump's promises to "drain the swamp" in Washington, Trump's drain appeared to be clogged.

What makes this opioid-gate scoop into a scandal is how dramatically it illustrates the corruption and insider-dealing that gives Trump's swamp-draining talk so much traction with his rally crowds.

First, there's the cozy relationship between lobbyists and lawmakers.

The CBS-Post investigation found Marino and some other members of Congress who were allied with major drug distributors persuaded the Drug Enforcement Administration and Justice Department to agree to an industry-friendly law that passed in April last year.

The chief advocate for the new law, tagged with the benign title "Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act," was Marino, who president Trump has chosen to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy, better known as "the drug czar."

Second, there's the lack of honesty in describing the new law to the public. Instead of improving drug enforcement, the new law weakened much of DEA's ability to stop the illegal flow of pain pills that often lead to overdoses from opioids, especially fentanyl and heroin.

The law makes it "virtually impossible for the DEA to freeze suspicious narcotic shipments from the companies," robbing the DEA of an important tool to stop suspicious drug shipments immediately, said the Post.

The law, passed in April last year as opioid overdoses topped 200,000, coincided with a sharp rise in reported overdose deaths to a record 19.9 per 100,000 population in the third quarter of 2016 from 16.7 per 100,000 for the same three months a year earlier.

Third, there's money in politics. The drug industry spent $106 million lobbying Congress between 2014 and 2016, the CBS-Post report found, and $1.5 million of that amount went to the 23 lawmakers who sponsored the various versions of the bill. It may be legal, but to swamp watchers it still looks like legal bribery at best, ultimately at great hazard to human lives.

Fourth, nobody in Washington jumps up to take responsibility for the passage of this controversial legislation --and without floor debate. It passed through both houses through a procedure usually reserved for noncontroversial bills, according to the Post. Few besides its sponsors appear to have known what the consequences of the bill would be.

Even when President Obama signed the bill into law, officials told the Post and CBS, his administration was also unaware of its potential impact. That may be true, considering how much presidents and legislators rely on others to read the fine print in bills for them. But the severe consequences of legislation like this, with hundreds of thousands of lives in the balance, call for an investigation of how this scandal happened and how more like it can be avoided.

It is particularly ironic to me that the Justice Department, to which DEA answers, is currently headed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has given a rather ill-considered priority to rolling back the clock on marijuana legalization.

Sessions wants to restore federal prosecution of marijuana sales and possession, even in the seven states and the District of Columbia that have voted to legalize it recreationally and 29 states plus the District that have legalized it for medical use.

What a cruel joke. With voters moving in the direction of marijuana legalization, even as many are terrorized by the opiate epidemic, it's time for the feds to put their resources where they will do the most good.

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(E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.)

(c) 2017 CLARENCE PAGE DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.
 

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