Editor’s column: Blackburn’s role in opioid crisis overshadows her crack pipe concerns

February 21, 2022 10:00 am
During a Senate Judiciary hearing on domestic terrorism, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) raised questions about the impact on free speech. (Photo by Bill O'Leary-Pool/Getty Images)

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) (Photo by Bill O’Leary-Pool/Getty Images)

Given the Republican Party is so full of conspiracists and crackpots these days, it’s understandable Tennessee’s federally elected GOP characters get short shrift from the media.

Competition is tough from U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia who doesn’t know the difference between the Nazi Germany police force and cold tomato soup. A year ago, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas left his constituents to freeze when a 2021 ice storm took down the state’s power grid, heading to Mexico to escape the chill at a luxury resort before being shamed home. 

Kentucky U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie revealed in 2019 he didn’t understand that political science is a liberal arts course during a clash with former Secretary of State John Kerry. Massie has since made more news after starting a holiday trend, posing with his entire family holding weapons for his 2020 Christmas card.

I could go on, for I haven’t even begun to write about the federal lawmakers propping up the Trump-led Jan. 6 insurrection and continued effort to overturn the 2020 election (cc: U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri) but I write to call attention to Tennessee’s GOP ranks. 

We haven’t written about senior U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn in a good while but her actions of late beg to be addressed. 

To paraphrase a reporter from another outlet, she doesn’t get the media coverage that some of the other GOP standouts get, but she says things that are way out there.

Over the last two weeks, Blackburn held up congressional negotiations over a federal funding package, a move that almost led to a government shutdown, over an initiative by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration within the Health and Human Services Department to provide funds for organizations that distribute harm reduction kits to drug users.

The kits are aimed at reducing the spread of disease among users and include items like test strips for fentanyl—a synthetic opioid responsible for rising overdose cases both nationally and in Tennessee—lock boxes for medication, safe sex kits, Federal Drug Administration-approved overdose reversal medication and syringes.  

Blackburn or her staff members could have done a bit of research: I googled ‘harm reduction strategies in Europe’ to find out how similar strategies, combined with decriminalization of small amounts of illicit drugs and a focus on the treatment of substance abuse, has radically reduced overdoses in Portugal. When the U.S. had about 72,000 drug overdose deaths in 2019, Portugal had less than 100. 

Blackburn or a member of her staff could have researched harm reduction strategies, but she chose to hold up the federal budget over false claims crack pipes would be distributed to substance abusers, ignoring her own role in America’s opioid crisis.

But no. Instead, Blackburn read conservative outlets like the Washington Free Beacon, which published a story on Feb. 7 saying the Biden administration planned on buying crack pipes. (Despite the story being debunked, it remains at the top of the site.)

The same day, Blackburn posted a video tweet saying “the Biden administration is busy filling vending machines with crack pipes.”

What non-Tennessee outlets missed, however, is the rich irony of Blackburn complaining about funds used to help alleviate the opioid epidemic. 

Since Blackburn first ran for Congress in 2002, she has taken more than $1 million in contributions from pharmaceutical companies or health PACs, many associated with the same companies making opioid painkillers or distributing them across rural America. 

As a congresswoman in 2014, she co-sponsored the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act. That’s a nice name for a bill that was written by a pharmaceutical industry lobbyist, and one that significantly hinders the government’s ability to halt suspicious shipments of narcotics. 

A 2017 investigation by CBS News and the Washington Post into how the bill became law named Blackburn as a key backer of the legislation. Later, she said the law may have had “unintended consequences,” but an official with the Drug Enforcement Agency said he had briefed her in 2016 on how the law would worsen the opioid crisis.

Such hypocrisy coming from Blackburn, holding up government funding over her moral outrage that Americans with substance abuse issues might get help, while ignoring her own role in the continued opioid crisis.Tennesseans continue to die at alarming rates from opioid overdoses. According to reports from the Tennessee Department of Health, 1,451 Tennesseans died of overdoses in 2015, prior to the Blackburn-sponsored bill becoming law. 

By 2020, the number had doubled, with 3,020 Tennesseans dying of drug overdoses. Overdoses from fentanyl increased by 50%, according to health department statistics. 

Given Blackburn’s willingness to play partisan politics, chase red herrings and deny help to those in desperate need, some days, even Ted Cruz looks good.

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Holly McCall
Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.