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'American Cartel' chronicles battle against the opioid industry

An arrangement of prescription Oxycodone. (Mark Lennihan/AP)
An arrangement of prescription Oxycodone. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

For years, opioid-related deaths have been on the rise. Drug overdose deaths increased by 30% in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family are best known for their role in promoting widespread Oxycontin use, they’re not the only ones responsible. Washington Post investigative reporters Sari Horwitz and Scott Higham have spent years investigating how pharmaceutical companies banded together to prevent the Drug Enforcement Administration from taking legal action against them. They share their findings in a new book, “American Cartel: Inside the Battle to Bring Down the Opioid Industry.”

“Our investigation found that there were a constellation of companies that added fuel to this fire and turned it into an inferno,” says Higham.

“American Cartel” is told through the eyes of Joe Rannazzisi, a DEA agent. Rannazzisi and his team decide to go after opioid distributors and manufacturers by shutting down warehouses and issuing multi-million-dollar fines for their role in funneling narcotics into communities where they could be widely abused.

The companies targetted by Rannazzisi and the DEA banded together to fight back. They went after the DEA in court, and when that failed, turned their attention to Congress, working to pass bills that would defang the DEA.

In 2016, the drug industry managed to get Republicans Tom Marino and Marsha Blackburn to sponsor a bill that impacted the DEA’s work.

“[The bill] weakened them and it took away some of their tools to go after the industry,” says Horwitz.

The drug industry supplied members of Congress with campaign contributions and wrote up questions for them to ask during various hearings on Capitol Hill. The bill passed, but following reporting from The Washington Post about how it removed the DEA’s ability to shut down warehouses of law-breaking companies, Congress spoke out.

“It was only then that members of Congress stood up and said, ‘Whoa, we didn't know what was in that bill,’” Horwitz says. “Sen. [Joe] Manchin, for example … said, ‘Well, they pulled the wool over our eyes. We didn't realize what was in that bill.’”

Pharmaceutical companies also lured government employees away from their jobs with the DEA or Justice Department. Dozens of DEA agents, investigators and lawyers were enticed by lucrative jobs within the pharmaceutical industry. Higham says their salaries were tripled, and in some cases, quadrupled.

Higham also spoke with drug agents on the southern border who are growing increasingly upset at the pace drugs like fentanyl are arriving at the ports of entry. “They're very upset because they feel as though this could have been completely preventable,” he says.

On the legal front, Horwitz says there have been settlements to hold pharmaceutical companies liable, and money will go to local communities affected by the epidemic. When Higham and Horwitz spoke with families directly affected by the opioid crisis, Horwitz says they were angry that not a single Fortune 500 executive involved with the industry has been charged yet.

“Some people think this is history, the opioid epidemic. They've heard about it for so long,” Horwitz says. “But we are in the midst of the deadliest drug epidemic in American history, and it continues to this day.”

Shirley Jahad produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Jeannette Muhammad adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on July 25, 2022.

Miles Parks Associate Producer, Here & Now
Miles Parks was previously Here & Now's D.C.-based associate producer.


Shirley Jahad Producer, Here & Now
Shirley Jahad is a producer for Here & Now.


Jeannette Muhammad Freelance Associate Producer, Here & Now
Jeannette Muhammad is a freelance assistant producer for Here & Now.



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