Cantwell, Harris Introduce Bill to Combat Opioid Epidemic, Hold Manufacturers Accountable for Negligent, Misleading Practices

Nearly 700 Washingtonians died of opioid or heroin overdoses in 2016; more than 300,000 Americans have died since 2000

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Kamala Harris (D-CA) introduced legislation to combat the United States’ opioid and heroin epidemic by holding drug manufacturers accountable for aggressive and misleading advertising and negligent distribution practices that helped instigate the ongoing crisis.

“For too long, highly addictive drugs have flooded our communities, tearing apart families and burdening society with hundreds of billions of dollars in extra health care costs,” said Senator Cantwell. “Opioid manufacturers need to follow federal rules that are there to prevent illicit opioids from pouring into our communities. That’s why I am strengthening illicit distribution laws and fines against diversions for manufacturers who don’t follow them.”

“As the opioid epidemic continues to grow in number and severity, we must find new ways to stem the tide. By providing greater transparency, law enforcement officials will be better equipped to hold opioid distributors accountable for wrongdoing and go after the bad actors who prioritize their profits over people,” said Senator Harris.    

The senators’ legislation, the Comprehensive Addiction Reform, Education, and Safety (CARES) Act, strengthens federal penalties on drug companies that fail to monitor and report suspicious opioid distribution practices, while also increasing transparency for existing federal oversight of opioid manufacturing and advertising. Specifically, the legislation would:

  • Increase civil and criminal penalties on companies that fail to reasonably curtail their drugs from entering the illicit drug market. The legislation increases civil penalties from $10,000 to $100,000 per violation for negligence in reporting suspicious transaction activity. In addition, the bill doubles the maximum criminal penalty from $250,000 to $500,000 for companies that willfully disregard and/or knowingly fail to keep proper reporting systems or fail to report suspicious activity.
  • Provide transparency for opioid manufacturers that break the law. The legislation requires the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to publish information each year about opioid manufacturers’ prior conviction records under federal and state laws each year.
  • Help law enforcement investigate bad actors. The legislation authorizes additional funding for the DEA Tactical Diversion Squads, which investigate controlled substance manufacturers that are suspected of failing to reasonably curtail their drugs from entering the illicit drug market.
  • Help curtail drug trafficking. The legislation authorizes $50 million for fiscal year 2019 for the DEA’s heroin enforcement groups to target and dismantle illicit heroin trafficking organizations.

Law enforcement agencies, public health departments, and local elected officials have come out in support of Cantwell’s legislation.

Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson
“The opioid crisis is real. Washington families cannot wait for solutions. One way my office has joined the fight is through litigation, filing a lawsuit against one of the nation’s largest opioid manufacturers for its role causing the epidemic. I applaud Senator Cantwell’s work and leadership holding opioid manufacturers accountable with this legislation.”

Everett Police Department Chief Dan Templeman
“I strongly support Senator Cantwell’s legislation. For too long, illicit opioids have flooded our communities without sufficient accountability or meaningful penalties for opioid manufacturers. We cannot solve the opioid crisis if we don’t address the flow of illicit opioids into our communities. Senator Cantwell’s bill increases accountability and transparency measures to help end destructive distribution practices and hold responsible those manufacturers who negligently distribute opioids in our communities.”

Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor
“Excess quantities of highly addictive pills were produced and distributed as if every other person in America needed buckets of pain meds…The legislation which [Senator Cantwell is proposing] provides a unique opportunity to control a domestic source of this dangerous drug. In addition, it provides a tool to correct the reckless attitude of some of those who have manufactured and distributed this drug as if its over-production had no consequences for our nation and its people.”

Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl
“As the opioid crisis continues to intensify, a multi-pronged approach to addressing this very serious national issue must be implemented.  Holding accountable those who recklessly manufacture and peddle these narcotics is an important step towards resolving this widespread abuse of the vulnerable.”  

Kennewick Police Department Chief Ken Hohenberg
“Law enforcement throughout our nation is entrusted to provide public safety by holding those accountable who commit crimes within our communities. Whether we are dealing with criminal investigations or community problems, it is important to identify every component that is contributing to the problem. In dealing with the opioid crisis, a large component to this problem is the lack of manufacturer accountability. Law enforcement strongly supports this legislation as it will increase public safety by holding those accountable who are profiting from this epidemic.”

Snohomish County Sheriff Robert Trenary
“Our cities, towns and neighborhoods have changed because of the negligent distribution of opioids and the lack of accountability by opioid manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies. Three out of four heroin users in Snohomish County report that they abused prescription opioids prior to using heroin. I strongly support Senator Cantwell’s legislation to end destructive distribution practices and hold big pharmaceutical companies accountable.”

Background on the Opioid Epidemic

Throughout the United States, opioid sales nearly quadrupled between 1999 and 2014, and by 2012, 259 million opioid prescriptions were being written each year. The massive surge in opioid consumption has also led to increased usage of heroin, with studies showing that nearly 75% of new heroin users become addicted to drugs by using prescription opioids.

The resulting opioid and heroin epidemic has devastated communities across the country. Since 2000, more than 300,000 Americans have died from opioid or heroin overdoses. One hundred forty-five people fatally overdose on opioids or heroin each day and nearly 700 Washingtonians and 42,000 Americans have died of an opioids overdose in 2016 alone. The epidemic also has a significant economic impact, costing the United States at least $78 billion every year.

In recent months, the state of Washington and a number of Washington counties, cities, and municipalities have filed lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and distributors. In September of 2017, the state of Washington and city of Seattle sued Purdue Pharma in King County Superior Court, alleging that the company contributed to the opioid epidemic through deceptive marketing practices. A number of other entities in the state, including Pierce and Clallam counties and the cities of Tacoma and Everett, have joined over 100 other municipalities from around the country in a federal suit against the companies.

The introduction of the CARES Act comes as Senator Cantwell continues her legislative and stakeholder engagement on the issue. In December of 2016, Senator Cantwell supported the 21st Century Cures Act, which provided over $1 billion in federal funds to combat the opioid epidemic, including $11.7 million for Washington state. In February of 2017, Cantwell joined 28 of her colleagues to demand answers about drastic price-hikes for the life-saving, anti-overdose drug Naloxone. In September of 2017, Cantwell announced $4 million in funds for substance abuse and mental health treatment in Washington. And on February 2, Cantwell joined other elected officials and local stakeholders for a Pierce County summit on addressing the opioid crisis.