A controversial pharmaceutical company that makes a highly addictive opioid donated $500,000 to a campaign fighting a ballot measure in Arizona that would legalize recreational marijuana.
Proponents of the measure, Proposition 205, see Insys Therapeutics, the company behind the major contribution, as emblematic of the way the makers of dangerous painkillers block legalization efforts to pad their own profit margins. Marijuana is a cheaper and safer alternative to drugs that the likes of Insys sell, the advocates argue.
“We are truly shocked by our opponents’ decision to keep a donation from what appears to be one of the more unscrupulous members of Big Pharma,” said J.P. Holyoak, chair of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, in a statement. “You have a company using profits from the sale of what has been called ‘the most potent and dangerous opioid on the market’ to prevent adults from using a far less harmful substance.”
Insys currently only markets Subsys, an oral spray form of fentanyl, a powerful painkiller linked to the opioid epidemic, according to its most recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The Arizona-based firm is also developing a synthetic cannabis product, which it said would improve on a product it sold in the past, but has discontinued.
The company has endured multiple investigations in recent years for allegedly illegal marketing of Subsys. The state of Illinois sued the company in August, arguing that Insys had marketed the drug to physicians for “off-label” uses, meaning those not approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
California, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Arizona and Oregon have also investigated the company’s sales tactics.
The scrutiny has corresponded with a drop in revenue from Subsys. Insys’ net revenue went from $148 million in the first half of 2015 to $129 million in the first half of 2016, according to its SEC filing. The drop was “attributable” to a 27.7 percent decrease in Subsys sales, which the company partly offset through price increases.
The accusations are particularly problematic, because of the risks associated with the abuse of fentanyl-based drugs like Subsys. As Holyoak notes in his statement, Dr. Andrew Kolodny, executive director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, told CNBC that fentanyl is “the most potent and dangerous opioids on the market.”
The United States is in the midst of a deadly opioid epidemic. More than 28,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2014 ― the most on record ― according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Opioids include illegal drugs such as heroin, but the largest increase in overdose deaths from 2013 to 2014 was due to synthetic opioids like fentanyl.
Some reports indicate that fentanyl has grown in prominence after the demise of OxyContin, an opioid released by Purdue in the 1990s. (Purdue’s aggressive marketing of OxyContin is blamed for enabling the overprescription and abuse that gave rise to the current opioid crisis.)
“You have a company using profits from the sale of what has been called ‘the most potent and dangerous opioid on the market’ to prevent adults from using a far less harmful substance.”
Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy, the political action committee opposing Prop. 205 that received the donation from Insys, enjoys the backing of top Arizona lawmakers in the state, including Gov. Doug Ducey (R).
Insys is the first donor the group lists in a line at the bottom of the site acknowledging the sources of its “major funding.”
The other backers Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy publicizes are the Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry, Empire Southwest LLC, and Pima Medical Institute. The Arizona Chamber and Empire Southwest each contributed $50,000 to ARDP, and Pima gave $40,000 in the 12-month period ending in August, according to the latest campaign finance report.
Adam Deguire, the group’s campaign manager and a former chief of staff to Arizona Rep. Matt Salmon (R), told the U.S. News & World Report that ARDP would not be returning Insys’ donation. Insys is based in Arizona, whereas the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization group, is based in Washington, D.C., Deguire noted.
Barrett Marson, communications director of Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, said location is less important than motive in this case.
“Obviously Insys isn’t concerned about prohibition of marijuana, it is concerned about profits,” Marson said.
Registered voters in Arizona favored passing Prop. 205 by a 10-point margin as of the end of August, according to an Arizona Republic poll.
Medical marijuana has been legal in Arizona since 2010, but criminal penalties for its recreational use remain heavy.
The federal government still classifies marijuana as a “Schedule I” drug, a category it reserves for the most dangerous and addictive substances that have no acceptable medical use.