DEA Whistleblower Says Congress, Distributors Fueled Opioid Epidemic

A new Washington Post/60 Minutes interview alleges distributors and legislators are responsible for the opioid epidemic.

In the midst of the opioid epidemic, attempts to curb drug use were met with significant resistance by some members of Congress, lobbyists, and pharma stakeholders, according to a new 60 Minutes interview with Joe Rannazzisi, former deputy assistant administrator at the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) Office of Diversion Control.

In the interview with 60 Minutes and The Washington Post, Rannazzisi detailed how the opioid epidemic was not controlled due to efforts from stakeholders that allowed hundreds of millions of pills to flow through “rogue pharmacies” and pain clinics, according to CBS News.

“This is an industry that's out of control,” Rannazzisi told 60 Minutes. “What they wanna [sic] do, is do what they wanna [sic] do, and not worry about what the law is. And if they don't follow the law in drug supply, people die. That's just it. People die.”

The former DEA agent said that oversight from 3 large distributors fueled the opioid epidemic by allowing pain pills to be delivered all over the country and by ignoring the illicit use of the pills, according to the interview.

In the 1990s, opioids became the first-line therapy for chronic pain after manufacturers testified that the drugs were effective and came with a low risk of addiction, according to CBS. However, rising prescriptions coincided with an increase in addiction to the drugs.

Many Americans who became addicted sought new prescriptions from rogue physicians and pharmacists, meaning that healthcare professionals essentially became drug dealers, according to the report.

Although some of these providers were arrested and faced criminal charges, opioids were still being misused, which caused Rannazzisi to take a closer look at the supply chain. He identified distributors as the root cause of the opioid epidemic, according to the article.

“This was all new to us. We weren't seeing just some security violations, and a few bad orders. We were seeing hundreds of bad orders that involved millions and millions of tablets,” Rannazzisi told 60 Minutes. “That's when we started going after the distributors.”

While distributors have said they are not responsible for the opioid epidemic, they are required to report suspicious orders to the DEA. Investigators claim that these entities ignored this requirement.

Jim Geldhof, who ran pharmaceutical investigations from the DEA’s Detroit office, said that a pharmacy in a West Virginia town with only 392 residents ordered 9 million hydrocodone pills within a 2-year period, according to CBS. This was considered a suspicious order.

Geldhof accuses distributors of not reporting suspicious orders and not remaining compliant with regulations, which drove the opioid epidemic, according to the interview.

“I can tell you with 100% accuracy that we were in there on multiple occasions trying to get them to change their behavior,” Geldhof said. “And they just flat out ignored us.”

Over the past few years, distributors have paid millions of dollars in fines for filling suspicious orders of opioids. The entities claim that the DEA regulations were vague and unfair.

During an investigation into a large distributor, Rannazzisi said that he received significant pushback compared with smaller entities, according to the report.

DEA lawyers also noted significant changes in how the cases against the large companies were handled and said cases that were once easily approved now received intense scrutiny.

During this time—when lawyers were facing roadblocks and cases were being dismissed—the number of prescriptions continued to rise and pharma stakeholders began lobbying for legislation that would diminish the power of the DEA, according to the interview.

The legislation was introduced by Tom Marino (R-PA) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and aimed to protect patient access to pain medications, but Jonathan Novak, who worked on the DEA’s legal team, said that the bill removed the agency’s ability to freeze suspicious shipments of drugs, according to the report.

Rannazzisi testified against the bill in Congress and was subsequently investigated. While he was not removed from the DEA, his responsibilities were stripped and he resigned, according to the interview.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans have overdosed or died from opioids. Rannazzisi and other former DEA employees believe that the actions of distributors and Congress prevented the DEA from doing its job and allowed opioids to flood the streets, according to the interview.