Capitalism at Its Worst: The Opioid Crisis


A major investigation exposes an inhuman calculus of greed


Yesterday a major story broke, one that involves hundreds of billions of dollars, a massive and spiraling crisis in one of our economy’s largest industries, the corruption of Congress and a major Federal agency, and the deaths of more than 200,000 citizens of the United States over the past seventeen years.

Do you know what this story is about?

If not, you’re not alone. #OpioidCrisis isn’t exactly trending on Twitter, though it should be. The story, a joint investigation between 60 Minutes and The Washington Post, exposed an inhuman calculus of greed driving our pharmaceutical industry.

The companies involved — from drug distributors and retail outlets like McKesson and Walgreens to manufacturers like Johnson & Johnson — are making billions in revenue off the opioid crisis, and worse, they’ve spent more than $100 million lobbying Congress to insure that crisis only deepens, and their profits increase. The DEA has been fighting the corporations, but over the past few years, senior officials there have slow-rolled cases, and nearly 100 of them have left the DEA to work for drug companies and their related law firms.

The crisis found its apex with the passage of legislation early last year that essentially made it impossible for the DEA to go after drug distributors for profiting off of illegal diversions of their supply. The main sponsor and “author” of that bill was one Rep. Tom Marino, from Pennsylvania, though the bill in fact was written by a drug industry lobbyist. And guess what? Marino is now Trump’s candidate to be our nation’s drug czar.

60 Minutes profiled one of the DEA’s good guys, a senior DEA official turned whistle blower named Joseph T. Rannazzisi. Rannazzisi was run out of the DEA by Congressional pressure — and is now leading a lawsuit from states and municipalities fighting back. But they face high odds. “This is an industry that’s out of control. If they don’t follow the law in drug supply, and diversion occurs, people die. That’s just it, people die,” he told the Post. “And what they’re saying is, ‘The heck with your compliance. We’ll just get the law changed.’ ”

Obama did sign legislation that changed the law, and now claims, in essence, that he didn’t know what he was signing (the Post didn’t get the former president on the record, but those close to the process claim presidents will sign a bill if it has a majority backing and the affected agency, in this case the DEA, gives it a green light).

In short, no one looks good in this story, nor should they. Our regulatory agencies not only failed, they actively took part in creating that failure. Our drug industry is exposed as a malicious actor that directly places profits over the addiction, misery, and death of hundreds of thousands of Americans. And our Congress, not surprisingly, is exposed as a low rent flophouse with a “For Sale” sign on the front lawn.

Last August, while shooting a round of golf, President Trump declared that America’s opioid crisis was a “National Emergency” — this after he was briefed on the subject by a commission led by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. National emergencies are a real thing — it clears the way for more money, more action, more policy relief. But for all that to happen, the president has to actually submit the government documentation that makes a crisis real. Somehow, Team Trump has forgotten to file the paperwork.

Trump’s base — the frustrated white working and middle class — are literally being killed by a virulent strain of steroidal American capitalism. After reading the Post’s story, and watching 60 Minutes’ coverage, all we can do is root for Joe Rannazzisi and his colleagues at the state and local level. If they lose, we’ve well and truly lost our way as a country, and as a capitalist society.

Meanwhile, the “We Hate the Valley” train keeps rolling, with this piece being the latest volley. Money quote: “As is becoming obvious, these companies do not deserve the benefit of the doubt. We need greater regulation, even if it impedes the introduction of new services. If we can’t stop their proposals — if we can’t say that driverless cars may not be a worthy goal, to give just one example — then are we in control of our society? We need to break up these online monopolies because if a few people make the decisions about how we communicate, shop, learn the news, again, do we control our own society?”

Rana Foroohar is upping her game and sharing what she’s been reading in a new format (but the piece is paywalled, sorry). But you can get to the piece if you Google the title and then do a quick poll. Money quote: “As I’ve since learned, this is the way Big Tech rolls. Privacy is important when it’s theirs. And communication — with clients, the public, and each other — has tended to be done on their terms, if at all. Yet the pendulum may be swinging. The last several months of terrible press for Big Tech has created an opening for companies that can do even marginally better on the PR front than their competitors.”

Given the above, it’s not a surprise that Big Tech is “turning on the charm.” Money quote: “Amazon is sweeping the nation’s capitol with a branding campaign of jobs creation and support for small businesses, promoting the upsides of its major expansion in media, groceries and transportation. This year, Amazon has increased its lobbying staff to 83 members from 60, making it one of the biggest corporate lobbying shops in town.”

Everyone on the New York subway used to read magazines and newspapers. Now they stare at their phone. It’s kind of nice to know not that much has changed.

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