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Joseph Sabino Mistick: Congress stacked drug deck

| Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017, 9:00 p.m.

Shortly after Gene Vittone was sworn in as Washington County district attorney, he saw something that took the wind out of him. Coroner Tim Warco's 2011 annual report listed 46 accidental fatal drug overdoses, a record number in the small county south of Pittsburgh.

Before graduating from Duquesne Law School's evening division, Vittone spent 20 years as a paramedic, but he had not responded to even one accidental drug overdose. For the new DA, this was a new day. With the help of David J. Hickton, then the U.S. attorney for Western Pennsylvania and co-chair of the National Heroin Task Force, Vittone opened battles on every front. Kids are now taught the dangers of prescription and non-prescription drugs. First responders carry lifesaving naloxone. And addiction treatment starts in jail, because treatment beds are rare on the outside.

Still, by 2015, Washington County was the subject of a Washington Post story, by Lenny Bernstein, with the horrifying headline “The heroin epidemic's toll: One county, 70 minutes, eight overdoses.” And Coroner Warco's 2016 report showed that drug overdose deaths had more than doubled.

Vittone's dilemma is not uncommon. According to a June report from the online news site STAT, “Opioids could kill nearly half a million people across America over the next decade as the crisis of addiction and overdose accelerates.” No one — not Vittone or Hickton or local and federal law enforcers — could have fought harder in Washington County. But last week, we discovered that our own federal government had stacked the deck against them.

The Post and “60 Minutes” reported Congress passed a law in 2016 that prohibits the DEA from stopping the way that big drug companies distribute opioids. Joe Rannazzisi, a former top DEA enforcer turned whistleblower, told The Post that this allowed “drug dealers in lab coats” to flood our streets with opioids.

Pennsylvania Congressman Tom Marino, who was later nominated to become the new drug czar in the Trump administration, led the charge to pass the law that protects drug companies. After the story broke, Marino withdrew his nomination, and there are now moves to repeal the deadly law.

Still, it will be a long time before this battle is won. When opioids run out, addicts turn to cheap heroin, which has become even cheaper, with the addition of deadly fentanyl. And the body count mounts.

We have no shortage of tough prosecutors looking to nail the street dealers. But, taking our lessons from past wars on drugs, treatment for those who are addicted is just as important.

According to Vittone, “One recent study says we have up to 5,000 addicts here, and I only have 300 jail cells. You can't just prosecute your way out of this.”

So far, the attorneys general of 41 states are looking at making opioid manufacturers and distributors pay for the damage they have done, and some lawsuits have already been filed.

If it is found that these companies put billions of dollars in profit above lives of our loved ones, making them pay for treatment will just be the beginning of justice.

Joseph Sabino Mistick is a Pittsburgh lawyer (joemistick.com).

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