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Opioid Rx: A new home cure for government failure

Opioids have killed more than 200,000 Americans, authorities

Opioids have killed more than 200,000 Americans, authorities say -- more than three times the number of U.S. troops killed in the Vietnam War. Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Dominick Reuter

America’s homeland has been attacked by WMDs - non-nuclear but deadly weapons of mass devastation that have inflicted death and suffering throughout our land at a rate no doubt envied by the world’s terrorists and evil-doers.

These WMDs have killed more than 200,000 Americans, authorities say - more than three times the number of U.S. troops killed in the Vietnam War. We are talking here about pharmaceutical WMDs - opioids. Big Pharma companies make them to be prescription-only painkillers. But opioids are also addictive. And when craved and then abused, opioid painkillers can be people-killers.

This wasn’t one of those sudden WMD attacks that struck without warning - because the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration saw the deadly opioid wave coming and tried to aggressively combat the deadly spiral of addiction and overdose. But an infuriatingly detailed joint investigative report Sunday by The Washington Post and CBS News’ “60 Minutes” revealed how the drug industry’s big-spending lobbyists were able to weaken the DEA to the point that the opioid epidemic has brought death and devastation into families in all racial, regional and socioeconomic backgrounds.

The journalists documented the problems: An Ohio drug distributor had shipped 20 million doses of oxycodone and hydrocodone to West Virginia pharmacies. One West Virginia county, Mingo, population 25,000, got 11 million doses.

And the reporters documented how President Donald Trump’s onetime drug czar nominee, Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., worked behind the scenes as the key figure in the drug industry’s successful 2016 bill that defeated the DEA by stripping it of its prime enforcement tools. DEA Chief Administrative Law Judge John J. Mulrooney II wrote that the new law “imposed a dramatic diminution” of DEA powers, The Post wrote. Mulrooney added it became virtually impossible for the DEA to suspend a drug company’s operations.

Coincidentally, of course, Marino had received $92,500 in drug industry contributions in the last four years. You knew how this part was going to end: The White House put out the word that Trump was displeased by the revelations. And just two days later, Marino’s nomination was withdrawn.

But we can’t let that be all that this accomplishes. Because that’s nowhere near the end of what we’ve learned - nor is it the end of what we now need to demand. Because this was just a micro-sample of how things really have long worked (which is to say: not worked!) here in The Swamp that is Washington-on-the-Potomac.

Lost in the focus on Marino’s last ride on the Swamp’s waterslide is the reminder of the entire legislative history of this sludge. For Big Pharma invested at least $1.5 million in the campaigns of 23 key members of Congress. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who worked out the final details of the Senate bill, was the top recipient, as the drugmakers invested $177,000 in his re-election.

But the main point here is that both the Senate and the House approved the measure that gutted the DEA’s powers by unanimous consent - without even a roll call vote! It was considered just routine, so insignificant. President Barack Obama routinely signed the bill into law.

So now it is time for all concerned citizens to heed the urgent plea of actor Peter Finch’s classic fed-up TV anchor in the 1976 film “Network,” when he famously implored his viewers:

“I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell: ‘I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!’”

In this case, let’s demand that every member of the Senate and House, plus former President Obama - recognize the truth of what Pogo comic strip creator Walt Kelly had his swamp-dwelling possum tell us decades ago: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

In this case, let all those accept a self-fine as punishment. Let’s demand they all return to the U.S. Treasury one week’s salary for having failed to do their jobs - for being so lackadaisical that they didn’t even check out the real consequences of what they were so routinely approving.

Those consequences, in this opioid abuse epidemic, may well have been the overdose deaths of fellow Americans. Pay the fine! Then let the U.S. Treasury write a few checks to deserving opioid rehab facilities. That’s a far worthier investment than renting a member of Congress.

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive.