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DEA was slow to respond to deadly opioid crisis, government watchdog says

"Despite growing evidence that opioids were being oversubscribed and misused, DEA increased oxycodone production quotas," the Justice Department inspector general said.
Image: A Drug Enforcement Administration officer during a home raid in Colorado on Jan. 31, 2019.
A Drug Enforcement Administration officer.RJ Sangosti / Denver Post via Getty Images file

The Drug Enforcement Administration was slow to act in response to the nation's opioid crisis, allowing production to grow even though overdose deaths were on the rise, a Department of Justice report said Tuesday.

"DEA failed to develop a comprehensive national strategy that could have focused and directed its regulatory and enforcement efforts," Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department's inspector general, said.

"Despite growing evidence that opioids were being oversubscribed and misused, DEA increased oxycodone production quotas."

From 2003 through 2013, deaths from opioid overdoses rose about 8 percent a year, then shot up about 70 percent a year from 2013 to 2017. But the DEA did not reduce production quotas — the amount manufacturers are allowed to produce — until 2017. Instead, the quotas for oxycodone were raised by 400 percent from 2002 to 2013, the report said.

The inspector general also said the DEA does not gather adequate information "at the manufacturer, distributor, practitioner, and prescriber levels to enable it to detect diversity of opioids and identify emerging drug abuse trends."

Federal government figures show that more than 130 people die every day in the United States from opioid overdoses, and the epidemic has been blamed for more than 300,000 deaths since 2000. That category of drugs includes prescription pain relievers, heroin, and synthetic opioids including fentanyl.

The report said that as the number of deaths was rising dramatically between 2013 and 2017, the DEA cut back on its strongest enforcement tool, which allows the government to stop shipments of pills from distributors.

In response, the DEA said it has taken away roughly 900 drug licenses a year since 2011 and has stepped up the number of civil lawsuits and criminal prosecutions for misconduct that has fueled the opioid crisis.

"DEA works to identify and root out the bad actors," Mary Schaefer, the DEA's chief compliance officer, said, "whether they are manufacturers, distributors, pharmacies, or prescribers."