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NIDA Controls Cannabis Research And Now Big Pharma Is On Its Payroll

Matt Weeks
NIDA pills in a bottle top view

The National Institute on Drug Abuse has a new employee and many are wondering why the organization would need a former Big Pharma lobbyist on staff.

Jessica Hulsey Nickel is a former lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry. Her current resume lists two other jobs, one as the founder of a shady anti-addiction nonprofit and the other as a head of a different lobbying effort. So why is the NIDA ceding a vote on its operations to someone on the Big Pharma payroll?

That’s a good question.

NIDA building

NIHA Building, which houses NIDA

The Role of NIDA

NIDA is a research-based public organization dedicated to helping guide research efforts and public policy around drug abuse.

Toward those ends, it sponsors research, hosts conferences, briefs politicians, and writes white papers. It works to translate cutting-edge biomedical research and thought into understandable language and actionable policy.

It also owns a monopoly on medical cannabis research in the U.S.. Thanks to the laws that restrict NIDA’s actions, the U.S. has slow and sub-par research on medical cannabis.

Thus, whoever guides NIDA has an excellent position from which to shape how the nation deals cannabis, both recreationally and medically — as well as help guide efforts on cannabis-adjacent concerns. For example, NIDA will be instrumental in developing an effective answer to battling the opioid addiction epidemic. Its research and policy prescriptions will carry federal weight and bring federal dollars to states overrun with victims of the crisis.

So, it would seem fair and appropriate if the people drafting said policies and funding the research were not ethically and financially compromised to act in a way that may not be consistent with the nation’s best interests.

But, why should we think that Jessica Nickel would be compromised? As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

nida will get lots of monely like that pictured here

A Background in Dirty Business

Nickel’s main gig as head of the Brimley Group has netted big paychecks in recent years. If you look back over the group’s federal disclosures, it’s clear to see that they are staying afloat through their lobbying efforts on behalf of big players in the pharmaceutical industry.

For example, from 2014 to 2018, the group’s biggest client was Alkermes PLC, a biopharmaceutical company. Also, for most of those years, it was the biggest account by an uncommonly wide margin.

Alkermes makes drugs that treat diseases of the central nervous system, including schizophrenia, depression, and multiple sclerosis. In an odd bit of coincidence, cannabis happens to treat most of those diseases as well.

There are also links to Alkermes and some sincerely shady practices. NPR (National Public Radio) reported lobbyists for the company have tried to steer states toward policies that would make it more difficult for addicts to get medicine that could help their disease. Unless, of course, that medicine was a product of Alkermes.

It’s worth noting here that deaths due to opioid addiction have grown rapidly in recent years. From 1999 to 2015, there has been a four-fold increase in the number of Americans who died due to complications arising from addiction.

In other words, Alkermes is profiting off death.

hand holding pills

Nickel’s Suspicious Past

But is Nickel actually involved in Alkermes’s shady dealings? It’s unclear, but it also doesn’t matter. She has plenty of her own questionable behavior that’s been a lightning rod for criticism.

Take, for instance, the money her nonprofit receives from a group called PhRMA, also known as Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. PhRMA is another diabolical actor in the war against the war on opioid addiction.

It fought against an effort in Minnesota that would tax opioid drugs and put the tax money collected toward treatment. Why would it oppose such a measure? (Hint: it was bad for their bottom line.)

Nickel has again and again worked with PhRMA in ways that are less than becoming for an impartial governmental actor. By offering to escort lobbyists from PhRMA to meetings with lawmakers, Nickel is acting as a bridge from the industry to the legislators. She is  lending the air of legitimacy to PhRMA’s scheme to make money off sick and dying patients.

Two weeks after Nickel’s offer to accompany the lobbyists from PhRMA to the meeting, her nonprofit received a major influx of cash. Can you guess where it came from? You’ve guessed it, PhRMA.

Nickel, of course, maintains that she was only keeping lines of dialogue open. Insisting that — as a public administrator — she took no stance herself on the bill. However, the whole ordeal smells suspiciously like a quid pro quo.

Why does NIDA need a lobbyist? 

NIDA’s policies strictly forbid an active lobbyist from serving on its board of advisors, and Nickel is technically not a lobbyist. Her nonprofit receives funding in part by lobbying groups, and that’s enough of a buffer to qualify for a technical loophole.

Still, it’s impossible to deny that there isn’t lobbyist money coming to her these days, even if it is transitively. It’s ridiculous that NIDA accepts this as legitimate. Instead of getting funding by a lobbyist group — like she did just prior to working for NIDA — she is now paid by a group that’s paid by a lobbyist.

All it’s done is add a middle man and in doing, so cast a dark shadow over how NIDA operates. Nickel’s actions in and out of NIDA should be scrutinized carefully from now on. Why? So that the pivotal legal decisions for medical cannabis in the U.S. aren’t tainted by someone potentially working off a hidden agenda for Big Pharma. Patients deserve to have the most effective medical options at hand to treat themselves. Not the most lucrative options for the companies supplying the medicine.

Matt Weeks

A writer living and working in Athens, GA, Matt's work has appeared in various newspapers, books, magazines and online publications over the last 15 years. When he's not writing, he hosts bar trivia, plays in local bands, and makes a mean guacamole. He holds an undergraduate degree in journalism and a master's degree in organizational theory. His favorite movie is "Fletch."

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