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Watchdog finds DEA was ‘slow to respond’ to opioid epidemic

UPDATED: Tue., Oct. 1, 2019

In this June 6, 2017 file photo, an example of the amount of fentanyl that can be deadly after a news conference about deaths from fentanyl exposure, at DEA Headquarters in Arlington Va. The Justice Department’s inspector general says the Drug Enforcement Administration was “slow to respond” as America grappled with a rising opioid epidemic. The watchdog released a report Tuesday examining the agency’s regulatory and enforcement efforts to control opioids. (Jacquelyn Martin / AP)
In this June 6, 2017 file photo, an example of the amount of fentanyl that can be deadly after a news conference about deaths from fentanyl exposure, at DEA Headquarters in Arlington Va. The Justice Department’s inspector general says the Drug Enforcement Administration was “slow to respond” as America grappled with a rising opioid epidemic. The watchdog released a report Tuesday examining the agency’s regulatory and enforcement efforts to control opioids. (Jacquelyn Martin / AP)
By Mike Balsamo and Geoff Mulvihill Associated Press

WASHINGTON – The Drug Enforcement Administration was “slow to respond” as America grappled with a rising opioid epidemic, the Justice Department’s inspector general said in a report Tuesday that faulted the agency for cutting back use of a key enforcement tool and continuing to raise production quotas even as the number of deaths rose.

“Unlike past drug crises, in combating the current opioid epidemic DEA failed to develop a comprehensive national strategy that could have focused and directed its regulatory and enforcement efforts,” the watchdog report found.

Some of the findings could bolster the claims of drugmakers and distributors who have said the government should share the blame for the crisis. The first federal trial on the crisis, dealing with claims against the drug industry from two Ohio counties, is scheduled to begin later this month in Cleveland.

Opioids, a class of drugs that includes powerful prescription painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin and illegal drugs including heroin and illicitly made fentanyl, have been linked to more than 400,000 deaths in the U.S. since 2000.

The report examined the DEA’s regulatory and enforcement efforts to control opioids since the crisis began to come into focus. It found that as the number of opioid-related deaths drastically increased between 2013 and 2017, the DEA significantly reduced using one of its key enforcement tools – the ability to suspend manufacturers, distributors and other registrants to keep drugs from being diverted.

It also found the DEA raised the annual quota of the amount of oxycodone that can be manufactured by nearly 400% from 2002 to 2013.

In the report, weaknesses were identified in the DEA’s registration process, which allowed manufacturers, distributors and health care providers to immediately reapply after their registration was revoked or surrendered.

In a statement, the DEA noted that it has taken steps to reduce the diversion of prescription drugs to the black market, but the agency also agreed that more changes need to be made.

“DEA appreciates the OIG’s assessment of the programs involved in the report and the opportunity to discuss improvements made to increase the regulatory and enforcement efforts to control the diversion of opioids,” it said.

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