Newly unsealed documents in a Cleveland case provide clues to one of the most enduring mysteries of the opioid epidemic: How were drug companies able to weaken the federal government’s enforcement at the height of the crisis? The industry enlisted members of Congress to limit the powers of the Drug Enforcement Administration. It commissioned a “Crisis Playbook” to burnish its image and blame the federal government for not doing enough to stop the epidemic, the Washington Post reports. The new information is emerging through lawyers in the lawsuit against two dozen drug companies who have obtained depositions from high-ranking company officials, internal company emails and confidential memos. In 2016, the drug companies convinced members of Congress and Obama administration officials to rein in the DEA and force the agency to treat them as “partners” in efforts to solve the crisis. The companies won passage of a bill that curbed the DEA’s ability to suspend operations of drug companies that failed to follow the law.
The Post and “60 Minutes” have investigated the industry’s battles with DEA, but the full story never has been told because so few of the people involved will talk about it. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of more than 2,000 cities, towns and counties in federal court in Cleveland, seeks to hold the industry accountable for the opioid epidemic. The plaintiffs’ lawyers are pursuing their case under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, a law crafted to attack criminal organizations. Drug companies have ridiculed the RICO argument and asked U.S. District Judge Dan Polster to dismiss the case before an Oct. 21 trial. (A quick settlement seems unlikely; by Thursday, half of the nation’s state attorneys general said they would reject a tentative deal crafted by the other half, and many criticized the terms as grossly insufficient, the Associated Press reports.)