Fentanyl maker donates big to campaign opposing pot legalization

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An embattled pharmaceutical company that sells the powerful painkiller fentanyl has donated $500,000 toward keeping recreational use of marijuana illegal under Arizona law.

It's hard to imagine a more sinister donor than Insys Therapeutics Inc. in the eyes of pot legalization proponents, who long have claimed drug companies want to keep cannabis illegal to corner the market for drugs, some addictive and dangerous, that relieve pain and other symptoms.

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Insys currently markets just one product, according to an August filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission: a sublingual fentanyl spray it calls Subsys.

Two former company employees pleaded not guilty last month to federal charges related to an alleged kickback scheme to get doctors to prescribe Subsys.

Learn more about fentanyl

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A seized counterfeit hydrocodone tablets in the investigation of a rash of fentanyl overdoses in northern California is shown in this Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) photo released on April 4, 2016. At least 42 drug overdoses in the past two weeks have been reported in northern California, 10 of them fatal, in what authorities on Monday called the biggest cluster of poisonings linked to the powerful synthetic narcotic fentanyl ever to hit the U.S. West Coast. REUTERS/Drug Enforcement Administration/Handout via Reuters
Fentanyl Citrate, a CLASS II Controlled Substance as classified by the Drug Enforcement Agency in the secure area of a local hospital Friday, July10, 2009. Joe Amon / The Denver Post (Photo By Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
This undated photo provided by the Cuyahoga County Medical Examinerâs Office shows fentanyl pills. Authorities say they've arrested Ryan Gaston, a man in a Cleveland suburb after seizing more than 900 fentanyl pills marked liked tablets of the less-potent opiate oxycodone. The Cuyahoga County medical examiner said that lookalike pills were likely to blame for some of the county's 19 fentanyl-related overdose deaths in January 2016. (Cuyahoga County Medical Examinerâs Office via AP)
A collection of different brand and dosages of the Fentanyl patch, clearly marked wit warnings about non-precribed uses, Wednesday, April 26,2006 in St. Louis. Abuse of the patch is on a steady upward swing leading to many deaths. Emergency rooms visits by people misusing the pain relieving opiate fentanyl shot up nearly 14-fold nationwide from 2000 to 2004 to 8,000, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' figures. (AP Photo/Tom Gannam)
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Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a lawsuit late last month against the company alleging Insys hawked the drug to doctors for off-label prescribing, saying the company's "desire for increased profits led it to disregard patients' health and push addictive opioids for non-FDA approved purposes."

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid significantly more potent than heroin that can cause overdoses, especially when it's used to cut the supply of illegally sourced drugs. The musician Prince died from an accidental fentanyl overdose in April.

Insys made its large contribution to the anti-legalization campaign group Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy on Aug. 31, according to information posted online by the Arizona secretary of state's office.

Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the donation. A voicemail requesting comment from Insys was not immediately returned.

Advocates for the marijuana legalization initiative Proposition 205, which is up 10 percentage points in a poll released Wednesday by the Arizona Republic, condemned the donation.

J.P. Holyoak, chairman of the initiative-backing Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, said in a statement that"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."

Holyoak said: "Our opponents have made a conscious decision to associate with this company. They are now funding their campaign with profits from the sale of opioids – and maybe even the improper sale of opioids. We hope that every Arizonan understands that Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy is now a complete misnomer. Their entire campaign is tainted by this money. Any time an ad airs against Prop. 205, the voters should know that it was paid for by highly suspect Big Pharma actors."

From 2011 through at least last year, Insys also sold a second product: a generic version of Marinol, the synthetic version of the cannabinoid THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which the Food and Drug Administration allows for treatment of cancer and HIV-related symptoms like nausea and loss of appetite, which cannabis advocates say the raw plant material can treat without a corporate middleman. Insys said in its August filing it has no plans to resume those sales.

Marijuana legalization supporters say legal access to cannabis, which does not cause overdose deaths, could help combat overuse of medicine that serves as an on-ramp to potentially life-destroying addictions.

Johns Hopkins University researchers concluded in 2014, after studying the effects of state medical marijuana laws through 2010, that "medical cannabis laws are associated with significantly lower state-level opioid overdose mortality rates."

Currently, 25 states have laws allowing residents to use marijuana as medicine, although the raw plant remains a federally illegal Schedule I substance, which is defined as having no accepted medical value.

The Obama administration has allowed states broad leeway to regulate sales of marijuana for recreational or medical use, despite federal prohibition remaining unrepealed, and major-party presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have indicated they would pursue a similar approach.

Arizona voters legalized medical marijuana in an initiative that narrowly prevailed by about a 4,000-vote margin in 2010, and supporters of this year's legalization initiative expect the ultimate vote to be close again, perhaps the closest of the five states – including Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada and California – that also will consider joining the four pioneering marijuana legalization states and the nation's capital in November.

RELATED: Marijuana laws by state

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Marijuana laws by state

Alabama

No legalization of any kind

(Photo: Dennis Macdonald via Getty Images)

Alaska

Marijuana legalized for medical and recreational use 

(Photo: Zoonar/N.Okhitin via Getty Images)

Arizona

Marijuana legalized for medical use

(photo: TaylorB90/Flickr)

Arkansas

No legalization of any kind 

(photo: yorkfoto)

California

Marijuana legalized for medical use

(Photo: Dorling Kindersley via Getty Images)

Colorado

Marijuana legalized for medical and recreational use  

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Connecticut

Marijuana legalized for medical use 

(photo: Shutterstock)

Delaware

Marijuana legalized for medical use 

(photo: Shutterstock)

Florida

No legalization of any kind

(photo: Shutterstock)

Georgia

No legalization of any kind

(photo: Shutterstock)

Hawaii

Marijuana legalized for medical use

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Idaho

No legalization of any kind

(photo: Shutterstock)

Illinois

Marijuana legalized for medical use

(Photo: VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm)

Indiana

No legalization of any kind

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Iowa

No legalization of any kind

(photo: yorkfoto)

Kansas

No legalization of any kind

(photo: Shutterstock)

Kentucky

No legalization of any kind

(Photo: Dorling Kindersley via Getty Images)

Louisiana

No legalization of any kind

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Maine

Marijuana legalized for medical use

(photo: Shutterstock)

Maryland

Marijuana legalized for medical use

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Massachusetts

Marijuana legalized for medical use

(photo: Shutterstock)

Michigan

Marijuana legalized for medical use

(photo: Shutterstock)

Minnesota

Marijuana legalized for medical use

(photo: anthonylibrarian/Flickr)

Mississippi

No legalization of any kind

(Photo: Medioimages/Photodisc via Getty Images)

Missouri

No legalization of any kind 

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Montana

Marijuana legalized for medical use

(photo: J.Stephen Conn/Flickr)

Nebraska

No legalization of any kind 

(photo: Shutterstock)

Nevada

Marijuana legalized for medical use

(photo: Shutterstock)

New Hampshire

Marijuana legalized for medical use

(photo: Shutterstock)

New Jersey

Marijuana legalized for medical use 

(Photo: Shutterstock)

New Mexico

Marijuana legalized for medical use 

(photo: Shutterstock)

New York

Marijuana legalized for medical use

(photo: Shutterstock)

North Carolina

No legalization of any kind

(photo: Getty Images)

North Dakota

No legalization of any kind

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Ohio

No legalization of any kind

(photo: Shutterstock)

Oklahoma

No legalization of any kind

(photo: Shutterstock)

Oregon

Marijuana legalized for medical and recreational use  

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Pennsylvania

No legalization of any kind

(photo: Henryk Sadura)

Rhode Island 

Marijuana legalized for medical use

(Photo: Shutterstock)

South Carolina

No legalization of any kind

(Photo: Shutterstock)

South Dakota

No legalization of any kind

(Photo: Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the BPL/Flickr)

Tennessee

No legalization of any kind

(photo: Shutterstock)

Texas

No legalization of any kind

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Utah

No legalization of any kind 

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Vermont

Marijuana legalized for medical use

(photo: Shutterstock)

Virginia

No legalization of any kind

(photo: Shutterstock)

Washington

Marijuana legalized for medical and recreational use 

(photo: Shutterstock)

West Virginia 

No legalization of any kind

(Photo: dk_photos via Getty Images )

Wisconsin

No legalization of any kind 

(photo: Kubrak78)

Wyoming

No legalization of any kind

(Photo: Space Images via Getty Images)

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Pro-legalization campaign spokesman Barrett Marson says if the other side has any shame they will return Insys' donation, which is far and away the largest received by opponents to date.

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