BRISTOL, Va. — U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, is tackling drug issues in Southwest Virginia on multiple fronts.
Griffith is seeking his fifth two-year term in the U.S. House of Representatives for the 9th District, and the congressman stopped by the Bristol Herald Courier’s editorial board last week to discuss his vision for Southwest Virginia. Griffith’s challenger is Democrat Anthony Flaccavento of Abingdon, and voters will choose between them during the general election on Nov. 6.
Griffith spoke about his involvement in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which deals with health care and drug issues, and the aggressive response federal and state governments have adopted toward opioid manufacturers.
“There is so much blame to go around on this stuff,” he said. “We just sent letters to the big pharma companies. We’re trying to find out what did they know and when did they know it.”
Virginia’s attorney general recently filed suit against Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, claiming that the pharmaceutical company knowingly lied about the harmful effects of the opioid while trying to sell the product to physicians, who could then prescribe it to patients for pain management. Similar suits have been filed in nearly a dozen states.
Washington County is also pursuing litigation and will determine its next steps after receiving a more detailed report on opioid addiction in the county.
The increased scrutiny on opioid manufacturers and distributors has already yielded results.
“We brought in five of the biggest distributors of opioids, and four of them said they didn’t have any idea,” Griffith said. “One of them admitted liability and said they should have done a better job. McKesson paid a $150 million fine. … We are really going after this to see what we can do to stop it.”
Last year, McKesson Corp. paid a $150 million fine as part of a deal with the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of Justice regarding McKesson’s monitoring and reporting of suspicious controlled substance orders, which dated back to 2009.
Griffith said lawmakers are also looking for more response from another federal agency — the Food and Drug Administration.
“The FDA has been a little slow to realize we have a serious problem, and they need to be looking hard for less addictive pain relievers — which may include marijuana,” Griffith said. “If you told me I was going to be in a lot of pain and I had a choice between … an opiate and smoking marijuana … I would smoke the marijuana before I would take the opiate.”
Griffith acknowledged that some patients have done OK with opioid pain medications, and many need them because of chronic pain, but the country needs a “better solution.”
That’s another reason why Griffith continues to be supportive of allowing medicinal marijuana, an alternative to pain management he has advocated for since his time in the Virginia House of Delegates. Virginia has the nation’s oldest medicinal marijuana law for treating cancer and glaucoma, which was expanded to include CBD oil and THC-A oil.
Griffith said he’s introduced multiple bills supporting medical marijuana.
“I believe in it. I believe it’s got value,” Griffith said. “We’re using opioids; we’re using barbiturates. … I fear the dangers of marijuana, [but] we know the dangers of those two substances — they’re far worse than marijuana. I’m a big proponent of using it medicinally.”
Support for legalizing recreational marijuana has grown across the country, and some states who have already legalized it are pushing for the federal government to eliminate its restrictions on the drug. For Griffith, though, full legalization is a step too far.
“Decriminalization is probably going to happen, but I’m not for it,” Griffith said. “The days of putting people in jail for 30 years for small amounts of marijuana is silly. I’ll grant that went way too far. [But] if we decriminalize, we’re doing several things wrong. I blame the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] and both administrations — the last one more because they wouldn’t enforce the laws that exist, and the DEA wouldn’t reschedule it so we could use it for medical purposes.”
The federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, which is a substance with a great likelihood of abuse — the same category as heroin, LSD and methamphetamine.
“If we’re going to decriminalize it, shouldn’t we know what the long-term impacts are on the brain? There are impacts we just don’t know what they are,” Griffith said. “We have nothing, and I blame both Republican and Democrat DEA administrations for not allowing more research.”
U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, a Republican from Maryland, introduced a bill to allow research on marijuana impacts and Griffith signed on as a co-patron.
Challenger Flaccavento said he’s heard a “remarkably strong reception” from district voters who support decriminalizing marijuana, which he supports.
“I thought it was an issue strictly for the liberal end of the district or for young folks. It seems to be it [support] is pretty broad,” he said.
In his position paper, Flaccavento said the crisis is “destroying lives and families and hurting local economies.” He supports efforts at all levels that focus on prevention and treatment, including drug courts to assist recovering addicts, reducing excessive opioid prescriptions and penalties for unscrupulous pharmaceutical companies that don’t fully advise health care providers about their products’ potential for addiction.