Trump’s Opioid Death Penalty Double Standard
Statement of Robert Weissman, President, Public Citizen
March 19, 2018
Note: The Trump administration will finalize a plan to address America’s opioid crisis that will include language urging prosecutors to seek the death penalty as an option for dealers in fatal opioid overdose cases.
Is President Donald Trump planning to seek the death penalty for the corporate executives who fueled and, to a considerable extent, continue to fuel the opioid addiction epidemic?
The death penalty is unethical, ineffective and, in the case of opioids, likely counterproductive from a public health standpoint. But if the federal government is going to pursue severe punishment, it should do so with an even hand. Indeed, because they are the quintessential rational actors, presumably highly sensitive to deterrents, there is a stronger case for dealing harshly with prescription company executives than underground economy drug traffickers.
It is widely acknowledged that prescriptions are a key driver for the opioid addiction epidemic, with prescription opioid sales quadrupling from 1999 to 2010. This spike in sales is a direct result of improper and illegal marketing by the prescription companies.
A number of states are now pursuing litigation against opioid companies, seeking reimbursement for health care costs related to the opioid addiction epidemic, but the manufacturers have by and large escaped meaningful penalties. (To its credit, the U.S. Department of Justice recently has announced it will consider joining this litigation.) The U.S. Attorney’s office in Massachusetts is criminally prosecuting the founder and executives of Insys, for allegedly paying bribes and kickbacks to health care providers in exchange for prescribing the company’s fentanyl spray, Subsys.
But by and large, the prescription companies have avoided criminal prosecution or meaningful fines. A just-released Public Citizen report found only one settlement or prosecution against a company related to an opioid product of over $500 million (see table 6). To our knowledge, a parent company never has been excluded from participation in Medicare and Medicaid for illegal activities. Notably, a 1990s criminal plea from Purdue Pharma was filed by a subsidiary, enabling the parent company to continue selling to Medicare and Medicaid.
We don’t actually need the death penalty for these executives. But we do need tough penalties and criminal prosecution. It remains unclear that our tough guy president – so eager to threaten execution for street criminals – is ready to pursue that accountability for the powerful.