In attorney general bid, Ryan Torrens pushes new method for fighting opioids

Published December 18 2017
Updated December 23 2017

Ryan Torrens isnít ashamed to admit that heís a recovering alcoholic.

The 32-year-old Tampa attorney thinks that kind of perspective is whatís needed in order to understand and get a handle on the opioid epidemic in Florida, or what Torrens likes to call the "addiction epidemic."

Torrens is the only Democrat running for attorney general in 2018, while four Republicans have declared.

The opioid crisis has grabbed the political spotlight, 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 Donald Trump declared the epidemic a public health emergency and outlined some possible ways to fight addiction and make certain drugs less available.

"Itís hard to understand it unless youíve dealt with addiction," said Torrens. "I think we need to hold big pharmaceutical companies accountable."

Torrens lives in Odessa and practices consumer protection law and homeowner defense against mortgage foreclosures from his law office in Hyde Park. Heís a graduate of the University of Tampa and George Washington University law school.

Torrens sat down with the Buzz to talk about his plans to combat opioid abuse.

So youíre 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. Iím sober now, and Iíve worked the 12-step program. I can understand what itís 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. Itís 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 youíd 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 thatís gone into housing addicts and dealers in jails to Medicaid costs. I donít have to get permission from anyone to sue these companies. I would work with the attorneys in the Attorney Generalís office and sue. It would be a great source of additional revenue to fight this. The taxpayers shouldnít be paying for all of it.

What do you think funding should go toward, law enforcement or treatment?

I donít disagree that we should lock up drug dealers. But the average person whoís 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 thatís where I think the bulk of the money should go.

Current Attorney General Pam Bondi gets credit for cracking down on the pill mills in Florida in 2011. What do you think about what sheís 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 doesnít mean that people were suddenly no longer addicted. Thatís 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 hasnít done much other than shut down the pill mills and drive down the cost of Narcan. I think thatís an epic failure of a track record and just another reason why we need a change.

Divided on Mueller

Two Florida congressmen are figures in a growing battle over Robert Muellerís investigation into Russia, with conservative Matt Gaetz calling for an end to the probe and liberal Ted Deutch saying it needs to continue without interference.

"When my colleagues refer to the special counselís investigation as a Ďcoup díetat,í it really undermines the rule of law in this country," Deutch, D-Boca Raton, said on MSNBC.

"They ought to be careful, they ought to stop it, and they ought to let this investigation proceed for the benefit of the American people."

Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, has gotten considerable attention on Fox News for his questioning of the Mueller probe and the FBIís handling of Hillary Clinton.

"Where in the hell is our attorney general?" Gaetz said last week on Fox News. "We need Attorney General (Jeff) Sessions to step up, do his job, seize control of the nightmare that is this investigation and letís get some unbiased people involved in looking at the facts and itís time for Bob Mueller to put up or shut up. If heís got evidence of collusion, letís see it; and if he doesnít, letís move on and get to the issues can improve quality of life for the American people."

Alex Leary contributed to this weekís Buzz.

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