- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Sen. Bernard Sanders took direct aim Tuesday at opioid makers he said are fueling the drug-overdose crisis, proposing legislation that would impose crippling fines and even jail time on company executives who downplay the addictive nature of their product.

Mr. Sanders, Vermont independent and hero of the progressive left, said opioid manufacturers reaped billions of dollars from painkillers sales over the past decade, but haven’t been held accountable for their role in an addiction crisis that claims tens of thousands of Americans each year.

His bill would punish companies that falsely claim their opioid products aren’t addictive with prison terms of up to 10 years for chief executives, and forfeiture of profits. That money would then be placed in a fund to carry out anti-opioid addiction initiatives.

“At a time when local, state and federal governments are spending many billions of dollars a year dealing with the impact of the opioid epidemic, we must hold the pharmaceutical companies and executives that created the crisis accountable,” Mr. Sanders said.

Policymakers at all levels of government are rushing to battle the abuse of prescription opioids and illicit heroin and synthetic opioids.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Tuesday the Justice Department is making strides, detailing steps to reel in the amount of prescription pills flooding the market. His department also announced a major takedown of an interstate network that trafficked drugs into the opioid crisis’ “ground zero” in the foothills of Appalachia.

Mr. Sessions said the Drug Enforcement Administration, which sets yearly quotas of scheduled drugs, will work more closely with states and the federal Health and Human Services Department to set the 2019 quota.

Mr. Sessions said attorneys general in most of the states have agreed to an information-sharing to facilitate the effort.

“Business as usual is over. Ending the drug crisis is a top priority for the Trump administration,” the attorney general said at an event in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The Justice Department also said it delivered a major blow to a massive interstate network that trafficked drugs into the opioid crisis’ “ground zero” — Huntington, West Virginia.

“This is not a take down of corner dealers, this is a game changer,” said Mike B. Stuart, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, told reporters Tuesday morning.

West Virginia, and Huntington, in particular, have been devastated by the opioid epidemic. The region has the highest per capita overdose and death rates in the country, Mr. Stuart said.

Prosecutors allege many of those drugs, including heroin and fentanyl, were brought into Huntington from Detroit by the Peterson Trafficking Organization. On Tuesday morning, more than 200 state and local law enforcement officials executed warrants in both cities with the goal of dismantling the Peterson Trafficking Organization.

The takedown resulted in 30 people indicted on federal and state distribution, narcotics and firearms charges. As many as 100 others were expected to be arrested in Huntington and Detroit on similar charges Tuesday, federal authorities said.

The epidemic was sparked in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when legions of Americans got hooked on prescription painkillers they were legally prescribed. Many people turned to cheaper heroin that’s often laced with potent fentanyl, resulting in tens of thousands of overdose deaths per year nationwide.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee on May 8 will grill major opioid distributors for their own role in the West Virginia situation, saying high-profile companies dumped millions of pills in tiny towns.

Across the Capitol, Mr. Sanders said he filed his own bill because he was tired of waiting for companies to face consequences for downplaying the risky side of their products.

“We know that pharmaceutical companies lied about the addictive impacts of opioids they manufactured,” he said. “They knew how dangerous these products were but refused to tell doctors and patients.”

Purdue Pharma, which paid $600 million in fines in 2007 because of misleading claims around its opioid products, said earlier this year it would stop promoting OxyContin and other opioids to doctors.

The company responded to Mr. Sanders’ bill by saying the company shares the senator’s concerns and is committed to finding solutions to the crisis.

“Although our medication accounts for less two percent of all opioid prescriptions, Purdue’s led industry efforts to address this crisis which includes collaborating with law enforcement, funding state prescription drug monitoring programs and enhancing interoperability, and distributing the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain,” Purdue said in a company statement.

It also said it launched initiatives that warn teenagers about the dangers of opioids and fund grants to expand the use of overdose-reversing naloxone among law enforcement.

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