The clash between pharmaceutical companies and the marijuana industry has been documented relentlessly in the news, but the facts are often elusive, as are the people that are responsible for the opioid epidemic that has been sweeping the United States and other countries in the world. The pharmaceutical industry often claims that it was “unaware” of the damage that drugs like prescription fentanyl and oxycodone have been responsible for over the past sixteen years, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted their use quadrupled. At the beginning of December, 2016, the marijuana industry finally saw some comeuppance for the pharmaceutical companies that are fighting it tooth and nail; six former Insys Therapeutics, Inc. executives and managers were arrested on charges of bribing doctors nationwide to prescribe their drugs: namely, the opioid fentanyl. Fentanyl is responsible for the deaths of Prince and many other celebrities – not to mention 74 deaths in 72 hours in Chicago in 2015. Opioids are responsible for the addiction of many professional athletes, and footballers are coming out against them in record numbers, supporting marijuana-based alternatives instead. How did this epidemic start, and what does it have to do with the marijuana industry?
Opioid Epidemic in the United States
Don’t get the wrong idea; the opioid epidemic in the U.S. is far from over – and more than six out of ten overdose deaths are directly due to opioid use. Since 2000, drug overdose deaths have increased by 137% and 200% for opioid drug overdoses. The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) found that opioids were the cause of 2,591,000 cases of addiction, and that drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S.; 20,101 overdoses in 2015 were due to prescription pain relievers. On an average day in the United States, over 650,000 opioid prescriptions are dispensed, 3,900 people abuse them, 580 begin heroin use, and 78 people die from overdoses related to opioid abuse or use. The economic impact on the country is upwards of $75 billion annually, and them’s not small potatoes. This cost is second only to the cost of addiction and rampant irresponsible opioid prescribing that has torn apart families, relationships, and brought the shroud of addiction, homelessness, and death to our country in many different forms. As always, there must be someone to blame. Right? Many people blame the pharmaceutical industry, and greedy executives who either refuse to see the impacts of their actions or ignore that impact. Apparently the U.S. Department of Justice also blames them, since several people were recently arrested in connection with bribing doctors to prescribe their opioid-based drugs in order to pull in record revenues at Insys Therapeutics.
What Does Insys Do?
Insys Therapeutics is a pharmaceutical company located in Arizona, with a manufacturing facility in Round Rock, Texas. Insys makes, and its total net revenue increased to $91.1 million in 2015 from the previous year’s $66.5 million. The company’s main product is Subsys®, a fentanyl spray that is applied under the tongue and intended to relieve pain in cancer patients who are no longer responding to opioid therapy. (The company is currently developing a drug called Syndros (a liquid dronabinol or synthetic marijuana-based drug), which is meant to combat nausea and anorexia associated with cancer and AIDS patients, and a CBD-based infantile spasm medication.) The company has refused to comment on the arrest of its former executives; but that’s okay because we have the Internet.
What Happened at Insys?
The former Insys execs were arrested earlier this month; and it just so happens that the anti-marijuana-legalization campaign (Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy or ARDP) that helped defeat Arizona’s Prop 205 (sponsored by the campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Arizona) was supported by a hefty $500,000 donation from Insys Therapeutics. You may recall that Colorado government officials sent a letter to the ARDP’s leaders requesting that they withdraw false statements based on nothing about the results of Colorado’s legalization policies; unfortunately Prop 205 still failed due to a misinformation campaign. The six former executives of Insys, including Michael L. Babich, the former CEO and President from 2011 to 2015 ($364,693 yearly salary), and Michael J. Gurry, the former Vice President of Managed Markets were charged with allegations of racketeering, conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud, bribery, and doctor kickbacks in exchange for pushing Subsys® on patients – and get this, 99% of the patients didn’t even have cancer. Unbelievable, right? At least these drug company pushers were caught…the others arrested were Alec Burlakoff (former VP of sales), Richard M. Simon (former national director of sales), Sunrise Lee, and Joseph A. Rowan. Burlakoff told a sales representative for Subsys® that the doctors the company was wooing with lavish dinners and job offers to their relatives “do not need to be good speakers, they need to write a lot of prescriptions” following the poor performance of Subsys® against other drugs on the market. A fake reimbursement unit set up by Insys misled and defrauded insurers by pretending they were calling from doctors’ offices and blocked call origins so no one would find out. In June, two New York Insys salespeople were arrested for providing kickbacks, and a Connecticut nurse pled guilty to taking $83,000 in Insys kickbacks. This scandal goes deep, kids.
What Do the Insys Arrests Have to Do with the Marijuana Industry?
Carmen M. Ortiz is one of the Massachusetts and U.S. attorneys on the former Insys execs’ prosecution case, and stated that “Prescriptions for these highly addictive drugs, especially fentanyl, which is among the most potent [50 times heroin potency] and addictive opioids, should be prescribed without the influence of corporate money.” J.P. Holyoak of Arizona’s Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol campaign noted that “[Insys] is a company engaged in illegal marketing schemes, that is intentionally hooking people on opioids.” Perhaps if marijuana remains illegal in Arizona, the company’s new synthetic-marijuana and CBD-based medicines will sell better, hmm? Isn’t it amazing that marijuana is still a Schedule I drug while fentanyl is only a Schedule II? Although marijuana law reform is slowly winning in this country, the refusal of the federal government to recognize the potential of marijuana in medicine instead of encouraging policy that lines the pockets of greedy people like the execs who were recently arrested is propelling the opioid epidemic and keeping people addicted.