Ryan Torrens isn't ashamed to admit that he's a recovering alcoholic.
The 32-year-old Tampa attorney thinks that kind of perspective is what's needed in order to understand and get a handle on the opioid epidemic in Florida, or what Torrens likes to call it, the "addiction epidemic."
The opioid crisis has grabbed the political spotlight as of late, with state and national leaders promising action. Gov. Rick Scott pledged in September to push for tighter prescription rules and budget $50 million for treatment and beefed up law enforcement. A month later, President Trump declared the epidemic a public health emergency and outlined some possible ways to fight addiction and make certain drugs less available.
"It's hard to understand it unless you've dealt with addiction," said Torrens, who is a democrat running for state attorney general in 2018. "I think we need to hold big pharmaceutical companies accountable."
Torrens is a fifth generation Tampian who lives in Odessa and practices consumer protection law and homeowner defense against mortgage foreclosures from his law office Hyde Park. He's a graduate of the University of Tampa and George Washington University law school.
Torrens and his campaign team created a task force on the addiction crisis, made up of local advocates and leaders who understand recovery and treatment, he said. If elected to state attorney general, he said his plan would be to sue the drug companies.
Torrens sat down with the The Buzz to talk more about his plans to combat opioid abuse.
So you're a recovering alcoholic.
Yes. But I think that puts me in a rare position to lead. Instead of just focusing on talking points, I can relate to the issue at a different level. I'm sober now, and I've worked the 12-step program. I can understand what it's like to be an addict.
So what would you do as attorney general to fight the opioid crisis?
I would hold the big pharmaceutical companies accountable for their actions. To do that, I would sue them. There are six or seven states already doing this. Like West Virginia, which sued two major prescribers of painkillers. It's a movement sort of like when Big Tobacco was sued. Settlement money could be used for treatment and prevention, which would hopefully make a bigger dent than the $50 million Rick Scott has pledged. I would sue for hundreds of millions of dollars.
Why do you think you'd have a good case?
The makers and distributors of painkillers like Oxycodone and Percocet purposely use misleading marketing. The pamphlets and information they give to physicians said nothing about how addictive these drugs were. Florida has real damages to show, like the amount of resources that's gone into housing addicts and dealers in jails to Medicaid costs. I don't have to get permission from anyone to sue these companies. I would work with the attorneys in the Attorney General's office and sue. It would be a great source of additional revenue to fight this. The taxpayers shouldn't be paying for all of it.
What do you think funding should go toward, law enforcement or treatment?
I don't disagree that we should lock up drug dealers. But the average person whose in the throes of addiction needs help. It takes a lot of time for your brain to heal from something like that. Treatment can be expensive, and that's where I think the bulk of the money should go.
How would you hold drug companies accountable in the future then?
I don't think banning the drugs outright is the way to go. They do have a purpose and help in some situations, when managed correctly. But the addictive qualities to these drugs needs to be out in the open, especially in advertising and marketing. People should be warned about the consequences up front.
Current attorney general Pam Bondi gets credit for cracking down on the pill mills in Florida in 2011. What do you think about what she's done to fight the crisis?
Her efforts to shut down the pill mills were well-intentioned, but she was not thinking at the time what came after that. Just because the pill mills were gone doesn't mean that people were suddenly no longer addicted. That's not how addiction works. Now cocaine use is up and addicts are turning to heroin here in Florida. I think Pam Bondi failed miserably to hold the pharmaceutical companies accountable. She hasn't done much other than shut down the pill mills and drive down the cost of Narcan. I think that's an epic failure of a track record and just another reason why we need a change.