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Sen. Maria Cantwell calls for heavier penalties on drugmakers who fail to keep opioids off the street

UPDATED: Wed., Feb. 21, 2018, 9:17 p.m.

Senator Maria Cantwell speaks about a new bill she's introducing to crack down on opioid diversion on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018, at Spokane Regional Health District in Spokane, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Senator Maria Cantwell speaks about a new bill she's introducing to crack down on opioid diversion on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018, at Spokane Regional Health District in Spokane, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Flanked by law enforcement, social service and public health workers, Sen. Maria Cantwell spoke Wednesday in Spokane about the importance of cracking down on prescription opioid manufacturers who let their drugs flood communities.

“We are fighting back,” she said.

Cantwell introduced a bill in the Senate last week that would increase the fine for opioid manufacturers who fail to report suspicious drug orders from $10,000 per violation to $100,000 and doubles the maximum penalty to $500,000. She called the current fine a “slap on the wrist” and said it had proven inadequate to stop black market trafficking of prescription drugs.

“Despite this regulation, large quantities of these pills are flooding our communities,” she said. In Washington, 694 people died of an opioid overdose in 2016, according to the Department of Health.

Cantwell spoke to half a dozen people currently in treatment at the Spokane Regional Health District.

One man, who asked that his name not be used because his boss doesn’t know about his history of drug addiction, said he started taking high doses of opioids after he dislocated his shoulder playing football. The injury required surgery and became chronic and his doctor kept writing him refills of painkillers.

“He was just filling it and filling it,” he said, echoing stories shared by others in treatment.

Eventually, the man told his doctor he had a problem and got referred to methadone treatment. He’s been there eight years and was able to keep the same corporate job in an industry where he’s worked for 28 years, he said.

He said he supports Cantwell’s efforts, which he hoped would make it harder for someone in his position to become addicted.

The city of Everett sued Purdue, the manufacturer of OxyContin, last January, alleging the manufacturer failed to report multiple suspicious sales of the painkiller that were purchased by a trafficking ring in Los Angeles in 2008.

The lawsuit claims that trafficking ring was directly responsible for drugs coming into Everett, fueling increased taxpayer spending on law enforcement, emergency medical services and treatment.

That’s one local example of something Cantwell said is happening all over the country.

The bill, called the Comprehensive Addiction Reform, Education, and Safety Act, also requires the Drug Enforcement Administration to publish an annual report about opioid manufacturers’ record of violations and provides $50 million in funding for specialized DEA units to target heroin traffickers.

Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl and Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich spoke in support of the bill, saying it was needed to keep people from becoming addicted.

Knezovich recalled meeting in the same room at the Spokane Regional Health District seven years ago with emergency room doctors to talk about making sure powerful painkillers weren’t being diverted.

“We’re here today because we weren’t successful,” he said.

Meidl said drug addiction is the biggest driver of property crime in Spokane.

“We all have a vested interest in the outcome of drug prevention efforts,” he said.

Cantwell acknowledged that without treatment options and other support for addicts, stemming the flow of pills could drive people to use heroin or other drugs.

“You need a comprehensive approach,” she said.

Preventing cuts to Medicaid is an important piece of that, she said, because the government-funded health program pays for so many treatment slots.

In Spokane, about 730 people are currently receiving treatment at the health district’s methadone clinic through Medicaid, director Julie Albright said.

Cantwell said she’s hoping to roll the bill into additional opioid treatment and prevention measures being considered in the Senate and ultimately wants to include them in the March budget deal Congress will have to pass.


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