Ninth District U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem) said he feels a number of federal health and drug agencies should have done more to address the opioid epidemic and find non-opioid pain relievers and that “bad” pharmaceutical companies that made huge profits as they contributed to the opioid epidemic should be prosecuted civilly and/or criminally.

Griffith, who is a former criminal defense attorney, spent an hour Monday talking with the Martinsville Bulletin staff about a variety of issues, with the opioid epidemic that encompasses Martinsville — and Virginia as a whole — as a primary topic. The meeting occurred before the announcement in Oklahoma of a judge’s finding against Johnson & Johnson for fueling the opioid crisis there.

MARTINSVILLE BULLETIN: One of the real big issues in Martinsville [and a significant issue in Virginia and the region, too], is the opioid crisis. We’ve tried a lot of things. What aren’t we doing that we should be dong to address that?

MORGAN GRIFFTH: This is such a complicated problem. I don’t want to throw any one agency under the bus, but I do think the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), National Institutes for Health, and the FDA could have gotten to work quicker and should be making it a priority to find non-opioid pain relievers. I think the DEA has been absolutely ridiculous in their stance on marijuana. I’ve been there a long time. Now look, I’m not for recreational. I think there are some real issues we have not addressed in part because the DEA has never let us do the research. They allowed a little bit every year but not enough, and they’ve gotten a little bit better but they haven’t gone far enough in my opinion to allow big-time research on THC and cannabidiol, all the way down the line. I think we should have done more earlier. That has some promise. Does it work? I don’t know.

BULLETIN: But medicinal marijuana is what you think is...

GRIFFTH: Medicinal marijuana, absolutely. It has great some promise as a pain reliever. Here’s what I know: I have fear that marijuana can trigger, and maybe it doesn’t affect everybody, can trigger some psychiatric disorders. I was a criminal defense attorney for 28 years. I saw people – now you could say the same thing about alcohol; I’m not going to discount that – but I’ve seen some people who used marijuana regularly and intensively who developed all kinds of problems. I saw other people who just didn’t live up to their potential, but I saw people who had significant psychiatric disorders. The question I don’t know is, Did the psychiatric disorder come first or the heavy marijuana use come first? I don’t know the answer to that. I think, again, we need more research. I worry that we haven’t done the research on that. It’s interesting that some of the same sections of society, big promoters of legalized marijuana for recreational purposes, were anti-big tobacco, because we don’t know the effects of long-term usage of marijuana. My philosophy has always been: You’re burning plant material in your mouth, and you suck it in. There’s likely to be some kind of problem.

BULLETIN: It doesn’t have tar and nicotine, but it’s got something.

GRIFFTH: Exactly, and we just don’t know. So I’m cautious there, but I do think we should have done a lot more work in the past. So if we’re not doing something, it’s, it’s, our federal health care divisions and the DEA not doing research, the health care divisions not doing research. If they don’t like marijuana, find me something else that’s not as bad as opioids because I will tell you as much as I am concerned about marijuana, I have no illusions that it’s worse than, it is clearly not worse than opioids, and we’ve known that for 150 years. Why have we not done more in that area to find pain blockers? It can be something, we probably know people who have used TENS [transcultaneous electrical nerve stimulation], the electrical charge that can help with certain back problems because it blocks the pain. All kinds of research should have been done if there is some other way besides chemical that we might be able to block pain or help people deal with pain. So that’s the issue, because there are people who need pain treatment — and even though they are abused sometimes by people who don’t have pain issues — a significant portion of the current crisis started because they got a prescription for a short period of time. That short period was 10 or 15 days as opposed to two. Then they are addicted. There is a huge percentage of people, I think it’s as high as 6 percent, if you use it for three to five days, will become addicted. The number slides slowly up the longer you’re on it.

BULLETIN: It’s quick. Accidental addiction is a huge issue.

GRIFFTH: It’s a huge issue. Now there are people who go out, just like any other illegal substances, they go out to party and have a good time as it starts off. I have not met the gentleman, but I saw the clip. A couple years ago a guy wrote a book about his son’s travail. He was a military guy. He got out of the military, went to the VA , had mouth surgery, or maybe it was right as he was getting out, he had dental surgery, and he got hooked and he was dead two years later of an overdose. He had been a model citizen, great high school student, great member of the military, honorably discharged because he didn’t get hooked until he was on his way out or just after. And in two years he is dead.

… But it happens all the time. There was a guy in Roanoke… He went to a party and somebody handed him a marijuana cigarette that was laced….The biggest shock I had on that one is I’m leaving Lee County. …. I had downloaded a book or I maybe I had it on to the CD. I was listening in Lee County and I had just come from an event with the sheriff, right there in the first chapter is Sheriff Parsons stepson, had to arrest his own stepson for opioid abuse… I just left. … I am like Holy cow, I just left Gary. I had no idea. I read about or listened to the audio version of the book of Beth Macy’s book [“Dopesick”] an had no idea he had faced that firsthand. It’s all over the place. The book deals with three general areas, two of which are I represent, deep southwest, Roanoke Valley and Shenandoah. I don’t represent Shenandoah.

I went to high school with the parent of one of the kids. Again, no idea. It’s tough stuff. ... It hits home. You know these people. Everybody knows somebody that’s got a problem., but when you read about it, somebody you went to high school’s kid died or the sheriff you just left who has been a political friend and ally for the whole time I’ve been in Congress. … Okay, this is serious stuff. We’re working on it. There are lots of things we are doing. It’s bipartisan. It’s not a partisan issue in DC. We’ll have to go back and take a look at it. We passed a bunch of bills last year. We’ll get some more bills. We’ll take a look at it. I really want to keep pressing both the DEA to get more studies done and the FDA, NIH and CDC to work on figuring out ways that we can find other pain relievers.

BULLETIN: What about cracking down on the pharmaceutical industry and the doctors themselves?

GRIFFTH: We’re doing that. No, No, we’re doing that. The doctors ...

BULLETIN: We have two huge cases that came out of Martinsville.

GRIFFTH: They ought to be cracked down on. That’s Justice Department. It doesn’t fall under my committee’s jurisdiction. The pharmaceutical folks are under our committee’s jurisdiction. We’ve had a bunch of them in. In fact, when Cardinal admitted that they [were] negligent, I was sitting there, when that admission was made. There were five of them, I think, that were there. He’s the only one that said, ‘Yeah, we could have done a better job. We were negligent.’ Everybody else was like, ‘Oh, no, no, no.’ They’re all full of horse manure.

BULLETIN: The Post story, the data base they dug up from, it’s been a few years ago. It just came out about a month ago.

GRIFFTH: I read all those articles. Of course, I represented the two top areas. There are some anomalies that we have to recognize. Martinsville represents — they did the per capita numbers on the city of Martinsville. It’s greater area. Same thing with the city of Norton. City of Norton sits right smack dab in the middle of Wise County, and a lot of the Wise County people. So the numbers here are a little off, but they’re not that far off. They were referring to a report showing that the city of Martinsville had the nation’s second-highest per-capita rate for the most opioid pain pills prescribed between 2006 and 2012, based on information in a database maintained by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration that was made public in July. [That report said 242 pills per person were distributed in Martinsville, exceeded in rate only by another Virginia city — Norton, with 306 pills per person.]

BULLETIN: Still, X number of pills in circulation.

GRIFFTH: We might have been 3 and 4 instead of 1 and 2, because Virginia has separate independent cities. So everywhere else the cities and counties were all merged in to get the population. In Norton and Martinsville, it was just the population of the cities. But still we were in and are one of the epicenters. …All these other people talking about that. West Virginia has good claim, but outside of that, particularly the coal regions and this region.…

BULLETIN: “This corner of the world.”

GRIFFTH:: “This corner. It was particularly bad, and there were bad doctors, and there were some bad pharmacies. Most of our bad pharmacies though, were actually, I don’t know about Martinsville, I don’t remember seeing any bad pharmacies in Martinsville.”

BULLETIN: There weren’t any pharmacies from Martinsville at the top of the list.

GRIFFITH: But West Virginia, less than, somewhere between, depending on how you drive the roads, 31 and 32 road miles from one of the top pharmacies in the country in West Virginia, 37 to another one of the bad pharmacies. And all those drugs are counted on the West Virginia numbers, and they’re coming into my district in a big way, and that strip right along the West Virginia border, because the pharmacies and the pharmaceutical distributors were shipping that stuff in. I can’t remember the name of the company now. … I grilled pretty good, got fined twice, the first time … six or seven or eight years ago. They’re still doing the same stuff. They’re looking the other way as the pharmacy is getting millions of pills, which made no sense. They claimed the first time they were going to straighten their act and they didn’t do it. They got hit for [a much larger fine] the second time if I remember correctly. They made a huge fortune on them. These are bad actors. I’m sorry. I’m not saying the guy at the top knew, but he should have known. Legal standards [are a case of] did you know or should you have known that something was going on? When their profits were soaring, somebody should have said, Wait a minute, let’s take a look and see where these drugs are going because they would have been able to stop some of those pharmacies. And the DEA bears some blame there too. I was acting chairman of the subcommittee for about two months. ... While we were doing that we went after the DEA, a lot of it behind closed doors. I don’t mind telling you that it was really interesting. This is where it shows you it was bipartisan. DEA made some allegation on the wall. There were four of us in the room. I was acting chairman of the Oversight Subcommittee on Energy and Commerce. Diane DeGette, a liberal from Colorado, a good friend of mine — we don’t agree on a lot but we’re good friends. People don’t realize that too: Sometimes you can have friends on the other side; you can disagree with people and not think they are evil.

[The then-chairman and now-chairman of the subcommittee]were sitting there. DEA makes some case, Diana and I, we were the two lawyers in the room. We both leaned forward....

Here’s what they did in one of my West Virginia counties. Because I’m going to get the names wrong, and I don’t want to put any false aspirations, we’ll just call it drug store company 1 and drug store company 2. They’re owned by the same people. The DEA whisks in and seizes the assets and starts going after drug store company 1 because they are selling pills across the county. It took them five years, and these two stores are 14 miles apart in West Virginia. They are owned by the same people. It’s the same name. It’s just store number 1 and store number 2. Five years to connect them. Five years to figure out maybe we should look at store number 2. I’m no investigator, but I think I would have figured that out sooner. We’re just sitting there. Our mouths are agape, because how in the world can you be that incompetent? … I think the drug manufacturers, I think the drug distributors, the pharmaceutical distributors, people who are allegedly legal manufacturers of pharmaceuticals did bad things ...

BULLETIN: They made a lot of money off of it.

GRIFFTH: They did. I was called by a member of a board of supervisors. The county won’t be named. They have since joined the suit. He said, ‘We’ve got this lawyer in here saying we ought to be joining up and suing the pharmaceutical companies. What do you think?’ I said: ‘Sign on. Do it.’ I said it’s going to be like a tobacco settlement maybe, but I said your county ought to be onboard. I have no doubt that’s a process for the civil, the criminal. Civilly and criminally they ought to be prosecuted. Anybody who knew or should have known ought to be sued civilly. Anybody who knew ought to be sued criminally. And brought to justice. They’re all over. DEA is just incompetent on that. Don’t get me started on federal government lawyers. They are all happy in their jobs and they are not willing to take any risks. Their fear was they’d get denied a subpoena. Whoop-dee-do. I practiced on the streets for 28 years. Sometimes you lose. OK it happens. Nobody says you have to have a 100 percent win record, but if you’re sitting there with store No. 1 and you’re afraid to get a subpoena on store No. 2 you’ve become ineffective, and you’re … negligent.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated Griffith's prior experience in criminal justice.

Paul Collins is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. Contact him at 276-638-8801, ext. 236.

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