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The Real Reason Pot Is Still Illegal | The Nation

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The Real Reason Pot Is Still Illegal

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CADCA’s website makes it clear that the organization—dedicated to a “world of safe, healthy and drug-free communities”—has adopted marijuana as its primary concern. The group’s stated policy priorities are to preserve and expand two federal drug-prevention grant programs and to oppose marijuana-law reform. CADCA has hosted training seminars to instruct community organizations in the best tactics for opposing efforts to legalize even medical marijuana. The group also offers template letters to the editor, sample opinion columns, talking points and other tips for pushing back against reform efforts.

Prescription drugs are another story. In this realm, both CADCA and the Partnership favor educational campaigns and limited pill-monitoring programs—measures that experts on painkiller addiction say are insufficient to deal with the burgeoning problem. CADCA’s site mentions prescription-drug abuse primarily in the context of expanding outreach programs funded through the Drug-Free Communities Act.

In February, the same month that CADCA held its convention, forty-two leading drug-prevention groups sent a letter to the Food and Drug Administration to protest the recent approval of Zohydro. Notably absent from the signatories: CADCA and the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. A policy paper posted by CADCA regarding prescription drugs doesn’t call for a shift in how the FDA regulates painkillers, arguing instead that federal drug-prevention grant programs should be expanded.

Asked about CADCA’s efforts to combat prescription-drug abuse, Thau replied that the group supports educational programs and drug-monitoring efforts, and also recently signed on to a bill—sponsored by Senator Ed Markey—that offers a civil-liability exemption to those who provide preventative medications to individuals experiencing an overdose. CADCA has also promoted voluntary drug “take-back” events that encourage people to bring their unused pharmaceuticals to a central location for disposal.

It’s important to keep in mind, however, that industry groups haven’t opposed any of these measures. But they do oppose those restrictions that could eat into the industry’s profits. In 2012, for example, a group of doctors and drug-prevention advocates petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to change the prescription labeling of opioids so that they could be prescribed only for “severe pain,” rather than the “moderate to severe pain” stipulated under the current guidelines. Purdue Pharma opposed the plan, calling on the FDA to “maintain that the current indications for long-acting opioids are appropriate.” According to advocates who spoke to The Nation on condition of anonymity, the Partnership refused to join the push for new prescription guidelines. CADCA didn’t sign on either.

CADCA and the Partnership have also failed to call for action on current bills in Congress to crack down aggressively on painkillers, including the Stop Oxy Abuse Act, which would—in keeping with the suggestion of the doctors’ advocates who petitioned the FDA—allow OxyContin to be prescribed only for severe pain. The two anti-drug groups have not signed on to support the Safe Prescribing Act, which would move hydrocodone products like Vicodin and Lortab from Schedule III to Schedule II, making the product more difficult to prescribe. Nor, for that matter, have they endorsed any of the bills introduced by Representative Hal Rogers or Senator Joe Manchin to block the approval of new, stronger pain-killer drugs such as Zohydro.

“I think it’s hypocritical to remain silent with regard to the scheduling of hydrocodone products, while investing energy in maintaining marijuana as a Schedule I drug,” says Dr. Andrew Kolodny, a New York psychiatrist who heads Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing. Kolodny notes that there are legitimate concerns regarding marijuana legalization, particularly how the drug may be marketed and its effect on adolescents, so “I don’t think it’s inappropriate for them to be advocating on marijuana.

“But,” he adds, “when we have a severe epidemic in America—one the CDC says is the worst drug epidemic in US history—it makes you wonder whether or not they’ve been influenced by their funding.”

In some cases, both CADCA and the Partnership have directly promoted certain opioids. In 2010, Marcia Lee Taylor, the Partnership’s chief lobbyist, signed on to a letter with Will Rowe of the American Pain Foundation asking the Office of National Drug Control Policy to continue Medicaid reimbursements for so-called “tamper-proof” opioids, which cannot be crushed or snorted but can still be abused to deadly effect. (The American Pain Foundation has since shut down, following an investigation by ProPublica showing that the group relied heavily on money from opioid manufacturers and played “down the risks associated with…painkillers while exaggerating the benefits.”) In 2012, CADCA joined with Purdue Pharma and other opioid makers in signing a similar letter to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Prescription-drug manufacturers like Purdue Pharma, which made more than $27 billion in revenues from OxyContin alone since 1996, have faced ethical problems in the past. In 2007, Purdue Pharma and its top executives paid $634.5 million in fines for deceptive marketing that played down the addictive properties of OxyContin. Also that same year, the company agreed to pay $19.5 million to twenty-six states and the District of Columbia to settle claims that it illegally encouraged doctors to overprescribe the drug. But the company’s influence over anti-drug advocacy is less known.

Erik Altieri, a spokesman for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, argues that marijuana can provide a “great alternative for treating chronic pain and other types of ailments.” Pharmaceutical companies “don’t want to see another vendor on the market.”

In a written response to queries, retired general Arthur Dean, CADCA’s chair and CEO, said: “The funding CADCA receives in no way impacts CADCA’s policy efforts or strategic direction. Prescription drugs are legal medicines that serve a legitimate and often life-saving purpose in our society. CADCA has utilized some discretionary grants from industry sources, such as Purdue Pharma and several other companies, to develop programs and tools to help community coalitions prevent and reduce youth prescription drug abuse and the abuse of over-the-counter cough medicine.” Asked about current proposals in Congress to rein in the way painkillers are prescribed, Dean replied: “CADCA has not taken a position on the proposed legislations.”

The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did Purdue Pharma and other opioid makers, including Abbott Laboratories, Pfizer and Alkermes. A spokesperson with Janssen told The Nation that the company funds CADCA to support “educational programs about the safe and responsible use of pain medicines.”

In May, CADCA sent out an action alert to its members, asking them to contact Congress and oppose an amendment in the House of Representatives that would block the DEA from targeting medical marijuana operations that are legal under state law. The measure passed later that month with bipartisan support.

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