Rep. Tom Marino has withdrawn his nomination as President Trump’s new drug czar after revelations he pushed through a measure that worsened the U.S. opioid epidemic. White-collar criminologist Bill Black says Marino and other lawmakers have been bought off by pharmaceutical companies he says have acted as “illicit, criminal, drug dealers”
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. President Trump’s choice for Drug Czar has withdrawn his nomination after it was revealed he’s played a major role in the nation’s opioid epidemic. A report by 60 Minutes and the Washington Post found Republican Congress member Tom Marino spearheaded a measure that made it harder for the DEA to crackdown on the illicit trade of pharmaceutical drugs. Marino is one of many cosponsors who took large campaign contributions from the drug industry. The controversy over Marino has brought new attention to the financial interests behind rampant opiod addiction in the US. Bill Black is a white collar criminologist, associate professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Welcome Bill. Your thoughts on Marino being put forward as the drug czar only to have that nomination withdrawn after it’s found out about his key role in the opioid crisis? BILL BLACK: Yes. First a little bit of background. Trump has left vacant the key positions that are supposed to deal with the opioid crisis. He’s said it’s an opioid crisis. He’s said it’s an emergency but he has failed to sign the actual document that would make it an emergency and would kick in emergency powers. When he finally did get around to nominating someone, he took the person in the world, I mean out of all the people in the world, the worst conceivable nominee. The person single greatest responsibility as primary sponsor and pusher of this bill, that gutted the DEA’s authority. He didn’t just stop there. He pushed to get the key guy, the whistle-blower that 60 Minutes and Washington Post based their reports in substantial part, to get that guy fired. He succeeded in getting that guy’s entire staff of roughly 600 people reported to him, removed so that he had zero reports and could do nothing. Opioids, the death from overdoses, from all causes, the best estimate last year was 64,000. That is considerably greater than all the people killed in the peak year by automobiles. It is roughly twice what were the peak number of people killed in terms of homicides and it is substantially greater than the peak year in which people died from AIDS. This is, all of those things were rightly described as epidemic and disasters and such, that had to be dealt with. Well we haven’t. We’ve had these deaths surge, as this legislation that Marino sponsored kicked in and DEA lost its ability to seize most of the illegal diversion of drugs. That’s not the only thing they did. Now, Marino was only partially responsible for this. Along with the industry and along with the senior people at the Department of Justice under President Obama, there was also an immense shutdown of enforcement, so that enforcement greatly slowed at the level of the DEA. All of this was done for the absolute worst of purposes. Just pure greed by companies that were making money. They realized that a huge source of their income came from providing drugs that would then indirectly be diverted and resold to people who were addicted. When you are addicted, then your risk of having an overdose and killing you is very high, but on top of that, even if you aren’t killed by it, the health consequences are really, really severe. All of this is a precursor to the synthetic opioids which are purely illegal product, but have this ready ground for sales because the industry has hooked so many people on prescription opioids. Fentanyl is a much bigger kick, but also much, much more likely to kill you quickly through overdoses and also ruin your life, even if it doesn’t kill you. Fentanyl overdose deaths are up 540% in the last three years. AARON MATÉ: Right. So, that DEA whistle-blower who you mentioned, his name is Joseph Renasissi and he’s interviewed extensively in that 60 Minutes piece. People want to watch it who haven’t yet. BILL BLACK: Let me say one thing. AARON MATÉ: Yeah. Sure. BILL BLACK: The reason I’m wearing the bank whistleblower united sweatshirt that I’m a co-founder of. I’m not speaking on their behalf, but the parallels to what was done in the savings and loan debacle are eerie in all of this. We had the same kind of actions by the legislators, when it was absolutely clear that there was an epidemic of elite fraud going on. The legislators intervened on behalf of the crooks. AARON MATÉ: Right. That was a scandal in the late 80s that had huge consequences for the economy. BILL BLACK: That’s right. This one kills people. It doesn’t kill a few people. It kills tens of thousands of Americans every year. Since the turn of the century, over 300,000 deaths are attributed opioid overdoses. AARON MATÉ: Right, Bill. In terms of this law, what it made … It made it hard for the DEA to essentially stop shipments of pharmaceuticals that were going to corrupt pharmacies and doctors who could then sell it on the black market, right? BILL BLACK: Right except that the key is that the people selling it were also corrupt. That needs to be said just absolutely flat out. These are … AARON MATÉ: In terms of the pharmaceutical companies? BILL BLACK: Right. AARON MATÉ: Okay. BILL BLACK: These are the big three distributors for the pharmaceutical companies. They were doing things as shown in the 60 Minutes, where they would sell nine million pills to a drug store in a community of 350 people population. AARON MATÉ: Ironically Tom Marino actually addressed this issue at a hearing in 2014 when Eric Holder was appearing. Tom Marino complained to Holder about how he perceived Holder was characterizing the drug companies you’re talking about. Let’s go to that clip. TOM MARINO: I was troubled by some language that you chose in noting the department’s enforcement initiatives. At least I inferred, you seemed to equate legitimate supply chain businesses to illicit narcotics cartels. I found that disappointed. This mindset, it’s extremely dangerous to legitimate business. AARON MATÉ: Bill, that’s Tom Marino in 2014 telling Eric Holder that he’s disappointed that Holder appeared to be likening drug companies to illicit narcotics cartels. BILL BLACK: Yeah it is, if you read any of my writings in white collar criminology, what we emphasize time after time is that what you use as your weapon is a seemingly legitimate company, but in substance they are absolutely drug dealers, illicit criminal drug dealers. That’s not all they do, but that is a huge portion of what they do. You can see it in the numbers, because the numbers are absurd. Right? We produce vastly and we sell, as a nation, vastly more pills than can be consumed legally. It’s not close. We are talking about many tens or hundreds of millions of excessive pills. That’s what has hooked people and that’s where the profits are. They know it. And they know how to stop it. It is not difficult in the least to stop these kinds of diversions, if you’re the companies. Remember, their senior officers are composed overwhelmingly of doctors, chemists, pharmacists, people that know exactly what this is going to do to the population, and Marino is a former US prosecutor, and a senior one. He was a US Attorney. He knows exactly that his schilling for these drug cartels posing as legitimate firms are going to kill hundreds of people in Pennsylvania alone, and collectively tens of thousands, and of course over a period of a decade or more, hundreds of thousands of Americans. He is getting reelected he thinks in large part because of the political contributions that he gets are so large from companies like this, that it gives him the ability to defeat primary challengers. AARON MATÉ: Right. In his case, it was over $100,000 from the pharma industry. In total his co-sponsors got together I think over $1.5 million. Listen, on that point, let me ask you two things. One, we’re not just, I think part of the problem here is we’re not just dealing with drug makers but there’s even, it’s such a big lobby because it also includes distributors and also pharmacies. So people don’t realize that someone like Walgreens or Rite Aid, they have a huge stake in this trade as well. I’m wondering if you can comment on that. Also, the fact that this bill was not just Republican. It was not just from people who took a lot of money from the drug industry. It basically passed unanimously in Congress and President Obama signed it. BILL BLACK: Right. Starting with the last point first, everybody at the level of Congress and the last White House and this White House is absolutely culpable and they know how to fix it. This bill is an outrage. It should be repealed on an emergency basis, bipartisan basis. If he is not fit to be DEA head, and he is not fit, then he is unfit to be a Representative. He should resign with his other cosponsors and they should begin voluntary work to undo the misery and loss of life that they have caused in this nation. When we talk about the diversion and the illegal sales, we are not talking about a small subset. You know, you do your best and some things leak through. We are talking about most of the pills sold, a majority of the pills sold are diverted and go to addiction. The primary business, the primary profit-center is illegal drug dealing. They know it. AARON MATÉ: That’s fascinating. We’ll leave it there. Bill Black, white collar criminologist, associate professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Thanks very much. BILL BLACK: Thank you. AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.