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Oct 21, 2017

Too many pills

Co-produced with PRX Logo

Drug overdoses now are the leading cause of death among Americans under 50, largely thanks to a surge in opioid use. Although heroin and fentanyl have dominated the headlines in recent years, the problem started with a flood of prescription painkillers, distributed by some of the country’s biggest corporations.

At the urging of his editor, Washington Post reporter Lenny Bernstein set out to learn why millions of pills were being sent to cities and towns across the U.S. – and why distributors seemed to shrug off evidence of rampant abuse. His reporting took him to Washington’s halls of power: the Department of Justice, Capitol Hill and deep inside the Drug Enforcement Administration, with a senior official who saw the crisis coming.

Dig Deeper

  • Read: The Drug Industry’s Triumph Over the DEA
  • Watch: Ex-DEA agent: Opioid crisis fueled by drug industry and Congress

Credits

Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

 

  Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:10:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Al Letson: From the Center For Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.
About 10 years ago, a top official at the DEA named Joe Rannazzisi saw the opiod epidemic coming. As pills flooded America by the truckload, Joe tried to stop the shipments.
Joe Rannazzisi: They had so much drug on the street, everybody was making money and people were dying.
Al Letson: Joe's team at the DEA found a choke point by going after distributors who made billions of dollars shipping the pills.
Joe Rannazzisi: If they're not going to comply with the law, they're no better than any other street dealer; so we're going to treat them that way.
Al Letson: But the companies pushed back. Then, so did the DEA.
Speaker 3: Cases would just sit and languish.
Al Letson: On this episode of Reveal, how the government failed to stop an epidemic.
Jim Briggs: Hi, this is Jim Briggs. I'm one of the people behind the scenes at Reveal making music and making sure every little thing sounds as good as it can. I'm also writing and performing music for our first-ever Reveal live show. It's coming up on Wednesday, November 1st at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago.
Let me tell you a little bit about the show. This is not going to be your typical live podcast. We're going to premiere a theatrical solo performance written and performed by our own Al Letson. It's based on our Street Fight episode, the one where Al got caught in the middle of a fight between Left-wing and Right-wing activists. But, there's going to be live music video and Al playing at least nine different characters. You don't want to miss it.
If you're going to be in or near Chicago on November 1st, check it out. You can get tickets at RevealNews.org/live. Once again, that's RevealNews.org/live.
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.
About a year-and-a-half ago, the health reporter at the Washington Post named Lenny Bernstein started reporting on the huge number of Americans dying of drug overdoses. His editor had a pretty simple question about how it all started with prescription pain killers.
Lenny Bernstein: She came to me and she said, "What I'd like you to do is to explain to people how all those pills got on the street. That doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Either somebody put them out there or somebody let them go out there." It was a great question.

 

Al Letson: Lenny started digging. He didn't know it then, but the story was going to lead him into the halls of power.

 

Lenny Bernstein: To the Justice Department. To Capital Hill. To the White House. To the drug industry.

 

Al Letson: The Washington Post assembled a reporting team around the project, including investigative reporter Scott Higham.

 

Scott Higham: Well, I've been a reporter for about 30 years, and it's the swampiest thing I think I've ever seen in Washington.

 

Al Letson: What they found raises serious questions about our federal government's role in the opiod epidemic. It takes us deep inside the Drug Enforcement Administration, the DEA.

 

We're teaming up with the Washington Post and 60 Minutes to answer the question, why was America flooded with pain pills in the first place? Reveal's Laura Starecheski is going to guide us through this one.

 

Laura S.: When Lenny's editor first gave him this assignment, he started cold-calling a ton of people. He was trying to find out, why didn't someone stop the flow of pills?

 

Lenny Bernstein: Finally, someone said to me, "You know, you ought to talk to Joe Rannazzisi. This is what he did until he retired recently."

 

Laura S.: Joe Rannazzisi had just retired from a position high up in the DEA.

 

Lenny Bernstein: I called him, and I just lucked out because I caught him at the right time. He had just been pushed out of a job he loved, and at a job where he felt he was making a real difference. Really doing something about the deaths that we were seeing on the streets, and he was just explosive. The conversation was explosive. I mean I couldn't get him off the phone.

 

Laura S.: Joe wanted money to know about these companies that he said were "largely responsible" for the opiod epidemic; not pharmaceutical manufacturers, companies called distributors who actually shipped the drugs.

 

Lenny Bernstein: The three big ones are McKesson, AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal. They control pretty much the whole market.

 

Laura S.: These distributors make billions every year. They are some of the largest American companies of any kind. But Lenny, a health reporter, knew almost nothing about them.

 

Lenny Bernstein: Joe was kind of schooling me on this. He was saying, "They are responsible. There are hundreds of millions of opiods on the streets killing people right now that don't need to be there."

 

Laura S.: I went to the D.C. suburbs to meet Joe Rannazzisi. He came to the door of his townhouse wearing jeans and comfortable shoes. He's got close-cut salt-and-pepper hair and a hound dog named Banjo, who wants to jump all over me.

 

Joe Rannazzisi: Banjo! No! No jumping!

 

Laura S.: Joe's got a basement full of paperwork and guitars he keeps meaning to play more.

 

Joe Rannazzisi: Too many guitars and not enough time to play guitars.

 

Laura S.: Did you play in a band?

 

Joe Rannazzisi: On and off.

 

Laura S.: I can't really imagine Joe on a stage. He gives off a no-nonsense, street-smart vibe, like a seasoned beat cop. He started as a DEA street agent in the 1980s, mostly in Detroit chasing down dealers.

 

Joe Rannazzisi: You could be coming into work in Detroit in the morning and end up in Albuquerque, New Mexico in the afternoon.

 

Laura S.: He worked on all kinds of cases.

 

Joe Rannazzisi: Coke. Heroin. Weed. Club drugs, the party drugs.

 

Laura S.: He did undercover buys.

 

Joe Rannazzisi: It was pretty simple actually. It's how convincing you are.

 

Laura S.: He loved it. Best job he could imagine.

 

Joe Rannazzisi: Protecting people, that's what's important. I wanted to make sure that I did my part.

 

Laura S.: Along the way he worked cases where prescription drugs were sold on the street. He perfected his training so he could go after bigger and bigger fish. Joe has a law degree and a pharmacy degree.

 

In 2006, Joe was promoted to a new position in D.C. at DEA headquarters. He'd be in charge of a special unit called "Diversion Control." Not as glamorous as busting heroin rings and making headlines. In fact, it was kind of a DEA backwater.

 

Joe Rannazzisi: It was a small unit that did a lot with very little.

 

Laura S.: Their mission was to keep prescription drugs ending up in the hands of drug users and dealers. This was just as the opiod epidemic was getting out of control.

 

Joe Rannazzisi: Millions and millions and millions of tablets were leaving the pharmacies and going into the communities and people were overdosing. It was a nightmare.

 

Laura S.: More than 10,000 people would die of prescription drug overdoses that year, so Joe went after the bad doctors. He went after the bad pharmacies, but then, he noticed something ...

 

Joe Rannazzisi: We were noticing that the distributors were sending these huge amounts of drugs into these pharmacies without looking at them, without doing any due diligence, without filing suspicious order reports.

 

Laura S.: Suspicious order reports. The companies were legally required to report any oddly huge orders to the DEA, but some companies weren't reporting them.

 

Joe Rannazzisi: Since they weren't doing all that at that point in time, we decided that we need to take a top-down approach.

 

Laura S.: Joe decided to go after the distributors sending those truckloads of drugs around the country.

 

Lenny Bernstein: We're standing in front of a very large Cardinal Health distribution center here in Baltimore.

 

Laura S.: Lenny and I visited this big beige building on the edge of the city to see the distributors in action. Shipping and receiving is behind a big security gate. Trucks are pulling in and out.

 

Lenny Bernstein: These distributors, the wholesale distributors, get the drugs from the manufacturers. The opiods. They ship them out to the places where you and I consume them, we buy them.

 

Laura S.: These are high-tech warehouses with sophisticated tracking systems. Cardinal ships all kinds of medicine to hospitals and pharmacies across the country, but not all the pain pills go to people who really need them. The size of the opiod shipments coming out of warehouses like this, tells the whole story.

 

Lenny Bernstein: Just to give you a sense of the scale here, between 2007 and 2012, distributors shipped nine million hydrocodone pills to a pharmacy. A single pharmacy in Kermit, West Virginia, which is a town of 392 people.

 

Laura S.: Nine million hydrocodone pills for a town of 392 people. If all those pills were really for the people of Kermit, West Virginia, each man, woman and child would have to take at least 12 pills a day every day for those five years.

 

At the DEA, Joe had a tool he could use to stop trucks from even leaving the warehouse in a situation like that. An immediate suspension order.

 

Joe Rannazzisi: Just think of it this way, an immediate suspension order says, "I'm coming in your facility and I'm stopping you from dispensing, distributing, do anything with controlled substances until we all can figure out what's going on."

 

  Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:10:04]
  Section 2 of 3          [00:10:00 - 00:20:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Joe Rannazzisi: ... controlled substances until we all could figure out what's going on and we're going to do that before a judge. I don't have to wait a year for a criminal case to go through or for a civil action to go through. I could stop it now.

 

Laura: Joe put the companies on notice. They would be held responsible if pills they shipped ended up on the street. If they didn't follow the law, he'd get an immediate suspension order and stop their shipments. After that, sometimes the company would get slapped with a multimillion dollar fine, which sounds like a lot, but these are Fortune 500 companies.

 

Joe Rannazzisi: It just seemed like no one in the industry cared. It's almost like they did a cost benefit analysis and they said, well if I can make, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars doing this, and I'm only going to be fined $30, $50, $100 million, then what the heck? I mean, we're making all this money, so why don't we just continue? It was mind blowing.

 

Laura: By 2010, as the opiod epidemic starts to explode, Joe's small legal team is humming. That year, they filed 52 of those immediate suspension orders against doctors, pharmacies and distributors.

 

Joe Rannazzisi: It was really a glorious time because they were just knocking them dead. They were just like filing and filing.

 

Laura: Hearing this, I was wondering how could these distributors just keep on shipping pills? How do they justify it? I asked Lenny.

 

Have you ever heard like a direct explanation from the companies why they weren't reporting the red flags or taking this on in a systematic way?

 

Lenny Bernstein: I've read many explanations because as they would fight these things out in court, they would give their side, so there are volumes in these court cases of the companies saying well, we have all these sophisticated analytics that look at these drug flow and we are super cautious about it. We don't send anything out where we think there's any kind of a problem, and how can you expect us to know what's going on in 55,000 drug stores that we supply. Some of them are 3,000 miles away, and you're expecting us to know that there's suspicious ordering going on in some little mom-and-pop drug store in West Virginia. We try our best.

 

Laura: I asked the distributors association, the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, for an interview, but they wouldn't do one. In a statement they put on their website, they say that they never got enough guidance from the DEA about how to follow the law. They sent emails to The Washington Post saying that the epidemic is not their fault, that overprescribing by doctors is the real problem. Joe's team was going after doctors and pharmacies too, but by 2012, he had his sights set on the biggest distributors. His team found that a Cardinal warehouse was shipping huge orders of oxycodone to four pharmacies in Sanford, Florida. Again, Lenny Bernstein.

 

Lenny Bernstein: The Cardinal case, the average drugstore in the area of Florida that the DEA focused on would hand out like 65,000 doses of oxycodone a year in 2012. And then the ones that they went in and busted, they were doing two million. Well, what's going on there?

 

Laura: The pharmacists would fill prescriptions for oxycodone even if a customer used street slang by asking for the "M's" or the "blues." Sanford, Florida attracted dealers from as far away as Kentucky.

 

Lenny Bernstein: So if you had a 30 milligram oxycodone, you might be able to sell that on the street for 30 bucks. So obviously, if you had 30 of those, they're worth $900. If you have 300 of those, you know, it's worth $9,000, so that's a lot of money.

 

Laura: This black market gave new meaning to the term drugstore.

 

Lenny Bernstein: It's just what you would think. There's a drugstore, and then there's a line out the door, and it fills the lobby. I mean, think of the last time you went to the drugstore, right? Was there a line out the door into the parking lot going all the way ... No. And there's a parking lot filled with out-of-state tags. There might be a drug deal or two in the parking lot, somebody selling to somebody else. Then later there would be these signs. It would say something like "cash only," "oxys $30." All you had to do was go there and look at the place.

 

Now, Cardinal should have seen that, and I believe they did.

 

Laura: Joe believed they knew because he'd already done one case against Cardinal back in 2007. They'd paid a fine, $34 million, and they promised to do better monitoring shipments.

 

Joe Rannazzisi: This time was more important because they were doing the same things they did the previous time. This is the time when we said look. We gave you your chance. You paid a minor fine. Now we're going to hammer you, which is what we should be doing. That's what regulators do.

 

Laura: Joe's preparing his case. This is in the beginning of 2012. He's confident. He's never lost any of the cases he's brought against distributors so far. Then he gets summoned to a meeting at the Department of Justice.

 

Al Letson: The meeting will be a signal. Things are about to change.

 

Male: Cases would just sit and languish for weeks, for months, for a year.

 

Al Letson: The industry pushes back. That's ahead on Reveal.

 

Amy Julia: Hey, everyone. I'm Amy Julia Harris.

 

Shoshana Walter: And I'm Shoshana Walter.

 

Amy Julia: We're reporters at Reveal. A couple weeks ago, we investigated CARE, a work-based rehab center in Oklahoma that forces drug defendants to work for free in poultry plants. A lot's happened since we broke the story. Two federal class action lawsuits and several government investigations, including one that could lead to criminal charges. We're going to keep on reporting on this issue, and we need your help to track down leads. If you have experience with a work-based rehab anywhere in the US, just text "rehab" to 63735. We'll send you a form where you can share your experience with us. One more time. That's text "rehab" to 63735.

 

Shoshana Walter: You can also find us on Twitter. I'm @shoeshine.

 

Amy Julia: And I'm @amyjharris.

 

Al Letson: If you're looking for real talk about race and class that doesn't feel like homework, you have got to check out We Live Here from St. Louis Public Radio and PRX. It's hosted by Tim Lloyd and Kameel Stanley, one of my favorite people in the universe. That was for Kameel because she's my homegirl. We Live Here is a show for people somewhere on the woke spectrum. Okay, so there's like this whole spectrum of people who are just waking up and they still got sleep in their eyes. And then there's like way up there on the woke spectrum where you're like bright eyed and bushy tailed and woke. So if you're anywhere on that spectrum, this podcast is for you. So, some of the things you'll hear on there, they've got accountability reporting about racial disparities. They've got a radio play about being black in America. The producers of Whose Streets talk about the choices they made while making the critically acclaimed documentary about activism in Ferguson. Think you're interested? Then go subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts, and tell Kameel that Al from Reveal said hey.

 

From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. We're telling the story of pharmaceutical distributors, companies that help flood the black market with pain pills, and the guy at the DEA who tried to stop them. His name is Joe Rannazzisi. It's February of 2012. Joe has been building a case against one of the biggest companies, Cardinal Health. Joe calls it the case of his dreams, but just as he's preparing to file it, the companies start pushing back. Here's Reveal's Laura Starecheski.

 

Laura: The backlash against Joe Rannazzisi would come in waves. Health reporter Lenny Bernstein of The Washington Post describes it this way.

 

Lenny Bernstein: The industry said okay, we have to fight back. We have to push back on this guy. He is really making our lives miserable. We begin to see this strategy which took place in a lot of places, on the Hill via the Justice Department.

 

Laura: The Justice Department started pushing back against Joe when he was just about to file immediate suspension orders in the Cardinal case to stop some of their shipments. He got summoned to a meeting with top staff at Justice, basically his boss's bosses. Joe says the message he got was, "Be friendlier to the industry," and, "We'll be watching you." He filed the Cardinal case anyway.

 

Joe Rannazzisi: I just decided that instead of dropping back, we were just going to be a little more aggressive, maybe a lot more aggressive.

 

Laura: Then, later that year, the DEA hired a new lawyer in charge of reviewing Joe's cases. He'd spent his career at Justice before taking the job.

 

Joe Rannazzisi: Within a few weeks, everything had kind of changed. They were turning cases down or not overtly turning cases down, but basically sitting back and saying yeah, you got to do the following things before we'll even look at the case.

 

  Section 2 of 3          [00:10:00 - 00:20:04]
  Section 3 of 3          [00:20:00 - 00:35:38]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Joe Rannazzisi: Yeah, you gotta do the following things before we'll even look at the case. These are cases, the same types of cases that we've been doing for years.

 

Speaker 2: These weren't just small delays. Scott Higham, at the Washington Post, says that what Joe described sounded like a massive slow down.

 

Scott Higham: They were making these cases. They would send them to Washington, and then the cases would just sit and languish for weeks, for months, for a year. I said, "Well, if that's really the case, then I need to go talk to the people who are making the cases."

 

Speaker 2: Scott started digging up contacts for DEA investigators around the country who had worked under Joe. Jim Geldof, in Detroit, was one of them.

 

Jim Geldof: It seems like everything we submit needs more information, more corroboration, re-interviewing people we've already interviewed two and three times.

 

Speaker 2: In 2013, Geldof was working on a case against a distributor, called Miami Lucan, that he found was shipping way too many pills to West Virginia.

 

Jim Geldof: They just kept flooding the market, and that was very, very difficult, because he had overdosed, yes, increasing dramatically in West Virginia, and you got a company that's just fueling the market for Oxycodone and Hydrocodone, and we can't seem to convince people that this is something that needs to be done. That was very frustrating.

 

Speaker 2: Scott gathered accounts like this, from agents in Michigan, Ohio, Georgia. They were only anecdotes though, showing what happened to a case here, or a case there, but he had an ace in the hole: internal DEA records that would show a national pattern. Scott pulls out a pile of paper to show me.

 

Scott Higham: This pile here, I don't know what it's ... It's about two inches of documents.

 

Speaker 2: All written by an administrative judge, named John Mulrooney, who oversaw all the DEA's cases against distributors. It's a huge stack of his quarterly reports.

 

Scott Higham: You just put them in order, in chronological order, and you just read them, and then the story starts to kind of ... It's like the clouds part and you just kind of start to see the stars. At the very beginning of these documents, of the timeframe that we looked at, he writes these reports saying, "This has been a great quarter. You've made all these cases, and keep up the good work," and then at a certain point in time, he starts to write in these reports that the cases are starting to slow down. "What's going on?" Then the next quarter, it's like, "This is stunningly low for a national program. How come we don't have any cases? We have an epidemic going on. Why are there no cases coming into my judges? What are you guys doing?" We were just like holy crap. This is confirmation, the best kind of confirmation that you can possibly have.

 

Lenny Bernstein: It's not just that these distributors are pouring all these drugs into our cities and towns, and turning their heads and ignoring the fact that they're being diverted to the black market. It's worse than that.

 

Speaker 2: Again, Lenny Bernstein.

 

Lenny Bernstein: The DEA, which is supposed to be stopping this, has very dramatically slowed its efforts.

 

Speaker 2: I asked the DEA for an interview about the slowdown, so they could explain what happened, but they wouldn't talk about it. They also turned down interviews with the Washington Post. Instead, they sent a statement with a list of their enforcement programs. It said, "We have legacy stuff we need to fix, but we now have good folks in place, and are moving in the right direction." The slowdown was just the beginning. By the summer of 2014, the pushback against Joe Rannazzisi's team had moved to Capitol Hill. Law makers were debating a new bill, called the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act.

 

Joe Rannazzisi: I mean, this act basically stops drug enforcement. Even the title is a lie. The title doesn't portray what actually is in the bill, and that's what's horrible.

 

Speaker 2: The bill promised effective drug enforcement, but it would make it harder for Joe to stop those huge shipments of pills. He'd always had to prove the shipments would cause an imminent threat to the public, that the pills would likely end up on the street and people could overdose. Now, the threat would have to be immediate, practically instant, an impossibly high bar.

 

Joe Rannazzisi: When a shipment leaves the facility, it might not get to the pharmacy for two days, three days. That drug might sit on the shelf for another two weeks. According to the new definition, it's no longer an imminent threat, because it's not immediate.

 

Speaker 2: People from the industry argued for the law, because they said DEA enforcement was too harsh. It was keeping people who actually needed prescription pain killers from getting them. A lawyer named Linden Barber made this argument, at a 2014 hearing about the bill.

 

Linden Barber: I believe that DEA does care about- [crosstalk 00:25:24]

 

Speaker 2: Barber actually used to work with Joe, at the DEA. He helped develop Joe's legal strategy against distributors. Then, in 2011, he switched sides. He started working at a private law firm that represents the distributors, including Cardinal.

 

Linden Barber: ... I do believe, and as a long time DEA employee, I've been gone for two and a half years. I believe the agency cares about patient access, but again, it's the unintended consequences. Mr. Rannazzisi testified previously, and knowing him, he's a pharmacist, he does care about patient access. I'm just not convinced that the way the agency handles enforcement activities contemplates all of the unintended consequences in the supply chain.

 

Joe Rannazzisi: Linden Barber should have known that DEA does cases based on established case law. This idea, this story line, that legitimate patients are not getting their medicine, or there's unintended consequences when thousands of people are dying, is an outrage, and he should know better than that.

 

Speaker 2: It turns out Linden Barber didn't just argue for the law. According to a Justice Department email Scott and Lenny got a hold of, he helped craft it. We tried to talk to him about it, but he declined. Barber wasn't the only one from Joe's team to switch sides. Here's Scott again.

 

Scott Higham: We found, without really even looking that hard, that there were at least, I think like 30 or 31 people, senior people from that division, that were recruited by these very same companies, and were installed in very key positions, and some of them in legal positions, so they knew the DEA's legal strategy. They have the keys to the kingdom.

 

Speaker 2: Joe tried to fight the bill. He spoke up on a conference call with lawmakers. There is no recording of the call, but he remembers saying he didn't like the bill because it would protect companies that were defendants in DEA cases. After the call, Tom Marino, the Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania who sponsored the bill, showed up at a hearing on Capitol Hill. He called out Joe and his entire strategy against the distributors.

 

Tom Marino: Big fines make headlines, but that is all they do. Press releases do not save lives. It is my understanding that Joe Rannazzisi, a senior DEA official, has publicly accused we, sponsors of the bill, of "supporting criminals." This offends me immensely.

 

Speaker 2: A week later, Marino wrote a letter accusing Joe of serious misconduct and intimidating members of Congress. The Office of the Inspector General at the Justice Department launched an investigation. While Marino's bill was being debated, the drug industry spent millions of dollars lobbying Congress. It finally passed last year. It practically neutralizes the DEA's ability to go after distributors.

 

Joe Rannazzisi: The public was sold a bill of goods. Somebody, somewhere, used influence to get this piece of trash through, and the only people that didn't benefit from it is the public, public health and safety.

 

Speaker 2: Tom Marino refused multiple interview requests, but Lenny, and Scott, and a 60 Minutes crew went to his office to try to talk to him.

 

Scott Higham: Hello.

 

Speaker 8: Hi, how are you? [crosstalk 00:29:10]

 

Scott Higham: Hi.

 

Speaker 8: I do have to ask you to not film us, please. [crosstalk 00:29:14]

 

Scott Higham: Okay. We'd just like to speak with the Congressman, if we may.

 

Speaker 8: Are you filming?

 

Speaker 9: I was, yes.

 

Speaker 2: His staffers told them to get the camera out, and then they called the Capitol Police.

 

Speaker 10: Good afternoon, gentlemen. How we doing?

 

Scott Higham: We're doing well. How are you?

 

Speaker 10: All right, we've got a report of a camera crew barging away into a congressional office, trying to get a statement, or a report, or something.

 

Scott Higham: I wouldn't say barging in. [crosstalk 00:29:37]

 

I'd been covering Washington on and off for 30 years, and I've never had anybody call the police on me before, anywhere, nevermind a member of Congress.

 

Speaker 2: Nothing ever came of the Inspector General's investigation into Joe, by the way, but at the DEA, Joe's office was moved down the hall, away from the action.

 

Joe Rannazzisi: Between the investigations, and the fact that I wasn't getting anything done because of the attorneys, it just got to a point where it was just not ... It wasn't working. Nothing was working anymore.

 

Speaker 2: Joe was replaced and pushed out. He retired in October of 2015, and the cases against the distributors, there have been very few since then. Here's Scott.

 

Scott Higham: It's kind of come to a halt. A lot of the people in the DEA, a lot of the people who are in this diversion world, feel like they've lost, that the corporations have won, and that they have lost, that the amount of influence that these companies have in Washington, with members of Congress, with people who used to work for the DEA in the Justice Department, who are now lobbyists, have put an enormous amount of pressure on the Department of Justice and the DEA to knock it off. Meanwhile, the deaths continue to rise. The cases continue to either fall or stagnate.

 

Speaker 2: Joe says he keeps meaning to fix up his old guitars in the basement and start playing again, but even though he's technically retired, he hasn't really had time for that.

 

Joe Rannazzisi: The one thing that's gonna stop this is if one of these corporations takes a major legal hit, and that's the way it'll stop.

 

Speaker 2: Since Joe wasn't able to stop the opioid crisis from inside the DEA, he's now trying to help stop it from the outside. He's advising several teams of lawyers who are going after the distributors. They're planning to sue the opioid industry, on behalf of several states, for the harm they've caused. One lawsuit has already been filed, on behalf of the Cherokee Nation. Joe hopes the companies will be made to pay for the devastation the epidemic has brought to countless cities and towns across America, and that somehow he can make up for all the truckloads of pills he couldn't hold back when he worked for the DEA.

 

Joe Rannazzisi: I'm not going away. I'm just not gonna go away. A lot of people died under my watch, and I'm just not ... I mean, I have to live with that every day.

 

Al Letson: Laura Starecheski produced that story with our partners at the Washington Post and 60 Minutes. Since the beginning of the opioid epidemic, almost 200,000 people have died of prescription drug overdoses. That's more than three times the number of American soldiers killed in the Vietnam War. In response to a version of this story, from the Washington Post and 60 Minutes, there have been a few developments, one about Tom Marino, the Congressman who called the cops on Lenny and Scott when they were trying to get answers about his pro industry law. President Trump had nominated him to be his drug czar, in charge of the National Office of Drug Control Policy. Marino has now pulled his name from consideration.

 

Another development: lawmakers are now proposing bills that would essentially reverse Marino's law, once again making it possible for the DEA to slow the flow of pills from distributors. On our next podcast, we're going to see how the opioid epidemic is destroying people's lives, through the story of one man who recorded video diaries as he fell deeper into addiction. His widow found those videos after his death and decided to watch them to come to grips with losing him.

 

Speaker 13: I am about to start watching some of the videos. I'm nervous. I'm a little anxious, but I need to watch them, because I need to know.

 

Al Letson: That's on the next episode of Reveal. Laura Starecheski produced our show this week, with our partners from the Washington Post and 60 Minutes. Thanks to Jeff Leen, David Fallis, Alice Lee, and Ira Rosen for their help. Our show was edited by Susanne Reber. WHYY in Philadelphia provided production support. Our lead sound designer and engineer is Jim Briggs. He had help this week from Catherine [Raymondo 00:34:42] and Kat [inaudible 00:34:43]. Amy Pyle's our editor in chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camerado, Lightening.

 

Support for Reveal's provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, The Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism in Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.

 

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