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Profit from opioid diversion

One month ago, The Washington Post and 60 Minutes revealed how a federal law enacted in 2016 allowed prescription narcotics to flood the black market, exacerbating America’s opioid addiction crisis.

On Tuesday, Montana Attorney General Tim Fox joined 43 other state attorneys general to urge repeal of the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act of 2016.

The act “is a step backward in our collective effort to prevent the diversion and misuse of prescription drugs and address our worsening epidemic of opioid addiction and overdose deaths,” the National Association of Attorney General said in a letter to congressional leaders.

The Washington Post-60 Minutes investigation “showed that by defining language in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, drug industry supporters in Congress upended more than four decades of DEA practice,” the Post reported. “The new law made it virtually impossible for the DEA to impose an ‘immediate suspension order’ on distributors of highly addictive painkillers that had failed to report suspicious orders of drugs such as oxycodone placed by pharmacies and other dispensers.”

Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pennsylvania, chief sponsor of the act for two years until it finally passed, was President Donald Trump’s nominee to head the DEA. Investigative journalists found that Marino had received $100,000 in campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry. Marino withdrew from consideration for the DEA leadership job two days after the scandal was reported.

In a National Public Radio interview, Scott Higham, one of the Washington Post reporters who wrote the investigative story, explained the law’s impact: “Say a distributor in Ohio or in Michigan was sending pills downstream to pharmacies in Florida. And one month, that pharmacy was ordering 10,000 pills, and the next month, that pharmacy was ordering a hundred thousand pills. Well, that's supposed to be reported to the DEA as a suspicious order. And a lot of these companies were not doing that.

“It's almost impossible to show that a company that is a thousand miles away is posing an immediate threat to a community. Now, they may be able to show that a doctor in your hometown or a pharmacist in your hometown is posing an immediate threat, and they can shut that person down. But the big companies, the distributors and the manufacturers — they're not going to be able to go after them.

“What we're talking about here is the abuse and sale of hundreds of millions of doses of oxycodone and Vicodin to the black market,” Higham said.

Montana, like other states, has tried to prevent abuse of painkillers. That’s why the Billings Police Department and other Montana law enforcement agencies encourage people to turn in their unused or expired medications for disposal. The Montana Board of Pharmacy was directed by law to set up a prescription drug registry to discourage doctor shopping. County attorneys and the U.S. Attorney’s Office prosecute illegal painkiller distributors. All those sources of painkillers are small compared with the enormous quantities of narcotics manufactured legally and diverted through unscrupulous people in the U.S. pharmaceutical industry.

“My office is working to address all aspects of substance abuse in Montana,” Fox said in a news release. “This includes joining forces with my attorney general colleagues, urging Congress to repeal laws like this that stand in the way of getting the substance abuse crisis under control.”

We commend Fox for joining in this bipartisan effort to correct a law that is fueling addiction and death across America. We want to see Montana’s entire delegation — Jon Tester, Steve Daines and Greg Gianforte — stand strongly in favor of repealing that 2016 law. The repeal effort hasn’t moved forward for lack of a Republican sponsor. Daines and Gianforte should rectify that problem.

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