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Why Did Fentanyl Maker Insys Give $500K to Defeat Legalization?

September 9, 2016
On Aug. 31, Insys Therapeutics, the corporation that manufactures fentanyl, donated half a million dollars to the campaign to defeat cannabis legalization in Arizona.

Once in a while there are moments that make legalization advocates pause and reflect on the reasons we fight for this cause. Many of us experienced one such moment yesterday when the Insys news crossed our desks.

Fentanyl is the synthetic opioid, cheaper and stronger than heroin, that’s turning North America’s opioid crisis into a catastrophe. Fentanyl is the drug that killed Prince. It’s up to 50 times more powerful than heroin. Pockets of the Midwest and Northeast are getting shredded by fentanyl. In July alone, the town of Akron, Ohio, documented nearly 300 overdoses and two dozen deaths linked to the drug. A surge in fentanyl-related overdose deaths recently forced officials in British Columbia to declare a public health emergency.

Fentanyl’s maker, Insys Therapeutics, is based in Chandler, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix. As a paragon of shady pharmaceutical-company ethics and practices, Insys gives Martin Shkreli’s Turing Pharmaceuticals and EpiPen maker Mylan a run for their money.

“The conduct that we saw (from Insys) in this case was among the most unconscionable that I've seen.”
David Hart, Oregon Assistant Attorney General

Three months ago, federal agents arrested two Insys officials in New York state for allegedly carrying out a kickback scheme that paid physicians to encourage their patients to use fentanyl. That indictment came four months after an Insys regional manager pleaded guilty to similar charges of rigging a doctor kickback scheme in the South.

Other state attorneys general continue to investigate the company’s practices. As more laws are broken, more patients become addicted, and more people die. Meanwhile, Insys continues to report record revenues.

A CNBC special report on Insys included this remarkable observation from Oregon Assistant Attorney General David Hart:

“I’ve been investigating drug cases for about 15 years now, and the conduct that we saw [from Insys] in this case was among the most unconscionable that I’ve seen. There was harm done to patients on a level I’m not used to seeing.”

Why would Insys care about cannabis legalization? Because cannabis is a major threat to its market.

A reported 28,647 Americans died from opioid-related overdoses in 2014. In the past century, the number of people who died from cannabis overdoses is exactly zero.

In recent years, researchers have documented a clear phenomenon: In states that legalize medical marijuana, opioid usage and overdose rates decline dramatically. Patients seeking relief from chronic pain are finding medical cannabis to be a safer, cheaper, more reliable form of relief that comes without the side effects of physical addiction and possible death. Castlight Health, a California health information and technology company, found in a recent report on opioid abuse that “states with medical marijuana laws have a lower opioid abuse rate than those that don’t.”

Related

Is Cannabis Better for Chronic Pain Than Opioids?

Two years ago a team from Johns Hopkins, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that the enactment of medical cannabis laws is associated with significantly lower opioid overdose death rates. “States with medical cannabis laws had a 24.8 percent lower mean annual opioid overdose mortality rate compared with states without medical cannabis laws,” they wrote.

That correlation strengthened over time, meaning the opioid mortality rate dropped further the longer each legal medical marijuana system was in effect.

In 2015, researchers at the RAND BING Center for Health Economics asked the question: “Do Medical Marijuana Laws Reduce Addiction and Deaths Related to Pain Killers?” The answer was an unequivocal yes.

The RAND health economists found that legalizing medical marijuana led to an 18 percent decrease in opioid-related deaths. States that allowed dispensaries to serve patients saw even larger opioid death decreases, “suggesting that dispensary allowances reduce opioid overdose deaths relative to just allowing medical marijuana.”

Related

Prescription Drug Use Falls in Medical Cannabis States

An 18 percent reduction in the number of people killed in 2014 by opioid-related overdoses would have saved the lives of 5,156 Americans that year. Reducing that number by 24.8 percent (as in the JAMA study) would have saved the lives of 7,104 daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, coaches, employees, managers, friends, relatives, and neighbors.

It also might have dampened the profits of Insys and other opioid manufacturers. Arizona already allows medical marijuana — Initiative 205 vote would allow adult use — but the continuing growth of the legalization movement represents a threat to the expansion of the fentanyl market across the continent. That’s why the company invested $500,000 to defeat legalization in its home state. And it’s why voters in Arizona should send a resounding message in favor of safety, sanity, and legalization in November.

Bruce Barcott's Bio Image

Bruce Barcott

Leafly Senior Editor Bruce Barcott oversees news, investigations, and feature projects. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and author of Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America.

View Bruce Barcott's articles

  • Buzzy Kerbox

    I am all for legalisation, cannabis is the most medicinal substance known to man, but how can you get people to take you seriously when you make ridiculous claims such as fentanyl being 50 times more powerful than heroin; you surely can not be serious? Its like prohibitionists claiming that cannabis is 20 times more addictive than tobacco.

    • Randy

      In my mind fentanyl has 100x higher potency than morphine. Heroin gets metabolized into two morphine molecules. So 50x potency sounds pretty close to me.

    • Alex Marsella

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equianalgesic -Not such a ridiculous claim if one does their homework…

    • lovingc

      50 to 100% more powerful.

      • Zac

        You guys are basically all wrong across the board. First of all, if you’re just using that chart, it actually says that heroin is 4-5x the strength of the gold-standard 10mg oral morphine, and Fentanyl is 50-100x the strength of 10mg oral morphine, making it 10-20x more potent than heroin using those figures.

        However, it is highly dependent on route of administration and individual metabolism. There is no one answer, only ranges.

        What is absolutely true is that people view heroin as the be-all, end-all of potent opioids and it’s not. Fentanyl IS many times stronger, and there are opioid medicines that are literally THOUSANDS of times stronger than heroin, used to immobilize and operate on large game animals like rhinos and elephants.

        Fentanyl is simply among the strongest opioids licensed for human use (sufentanil holds the title in western operating rooms), and no doubt it is a huge contributor to the opioid epidemic. It is often put in bags of badly cut heroin to give the impression of better product, or else people just use it on its own.

        If you’re going to complain about people not doing their homework, provide better sources or better information than an equianalgesia chart on wikipedia.

    • Jim Jackson

      The text in this story that is of different color is a link to someplace else on the internet that gives more information. The text “It’s up to 50 times more powerful than heroin.” includes one of those links that redirects to the CDC web site that says “Fentanyl is a synthetic (man-made) opioid that is 50x more potent than heroin and 100x more potent than morphine.”

    • Sean

      Seriously if u would think before u talk u would know that fentanyl is 50 times as strong it the only drug that is measured in micro milligrams because it is so strong it also the strongest opiate on the market the only thing that is as strong in methadone

  • kushmann
  • Randy

    Check the graph – they key may be switched. It appears to show that states with a medical cannabis law have a higher age adjusted opioid mortality rate.

  • ALAN GANN

    THE RICH STILL THINK IT MORE IMPORTANT FOR THEM TO GET RICHER THEN WE THE PEOPLE TO NOT SUFFER AND EVEN DIE!! ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!! WE NEED ACCESS TO THE WHOLE PLANT SO WE CAN LIVE A WHOLE LIFE!! #MakeItLegalNow

    • Steve Kennedy

      You will have to be willing to fight and die for that privilege like our founding were willing to fight and die for freedom..

  • qtface

    Did Insys donate to Bill Montgomrery or Sheila Polk’s campaign funds?

  • Joe Minton

    Those fuckers have no soul
    “We are proud of our pipeline and believe that product candidates in both sprays and cannabinoids hold great promise. “

  • lovingc

    This company is trying to protect its dangerous pain med from having to compete with something a hundred times safer than their product.

  • Chef “Lechero” Freeman

    What you doing know is that Prop 205 will take away patient rights, makes having over 5 grams of concentrate a class 4 felony. Does not give employer protection. Research people No on 205

    • Sergio Farias

      Is it worse than prohibition?

  • HughYonn

    I’ve been ‘researching’ cannabis for 47 years. The only bad experience I’ve ever had was spending 5 years in Federal Prison for a pot
    offense.
    Other than that, all things hunky-dory…

  • Jim Jackson

    WOW!! They sell the poison that kills by overdose and now I hear they want to
    make money off a “fast track” drug to treat the overdoses of their own
    poison. Sounds profitable!

  • Steve Stribley

    I don’t blame Insys. The blame lies with the individuals that accept the cash. I thought there were bribery laws that cover both bribery and accepting bribes. Oh, wait a minute. Government is above the law. Forgot about that.

  • Mike

    Man, its not because of this.

    Its because this pharmaceutical seels Dronabinol (synthetic THC).

  • DrKraig

    Pharmaceutical companies are busy turning every person in the U.S. into a drug addict, while our government wages a costly war on drugs financed by our tax dollars. It’s a big con game that we are forced to participate in, and I for one am ready to see it all come down.

  • Geoff Jacobs

    REVOLUTION!!!!

  • GWH

    Using the warm-and-fuzzy legalization tactic, the MPP-sponsored Prop 205 in AZ is a quick, get-rich scheme for DC and AZ state politicians, MPP and AZ-based dispensaries on the back of cannabis and at the sacrifice of AZ citizens. The prop 205 initiative is harmful to AZ and the people demand better. That’s why it is extremely crucial for all AZ voters to vote NO on Prop 205 and wait until 2018 for the grass-roots, Safer Arizona initiative, Campaign to Legalize and Regulate Marijuana (legalizemarijuanainarizona.org). This country was founded on the premise of individual rights first, not capitalism and politics, do the smart thing AZ, vote NO on Prop 205 and wait for2018…good thing come to those that wait.

    It should be legal anyway, a big thanks (obviously, being humorous here) to the Federal Government for their continuous unconstitutional laws banning cannabis from the people. What a way to uphold the peoples rights, and those like myself who suffer everyday for serving their country in war, times two.

    (Stepping off the soap box now…)

  • Gary Gueths

    Its all about control. The pharmaceutical companies want to sell pharmacueticals and marijuana is the best competition they have ever had. Keep marijuana illegal and you have no competition. Has any one noticed that there are few cures but many synthetic drugs to keep people alive and on medication?

  • John David Maher

    Insys Therapeutics donated not because they are against medical marijuana. They donated because they want groups that are most likely to support legislation and regulations they want. Most of the organizations that are anti marijuana are conservative and are for deregulation of companies that are well established, but do not want any new industries to get deregulated. If the anti Marijuana crowd was truly looking out for the health and welfare of our society, they would want more regulation that stops the use of alcohol and tobacco.