According to a watchdog report, the DEA allowed the drug crisis to reach a level that could have been prevented.
The DEA could have done more to blunt the impact of the national opioid crisis, which has claimed more than 300,000 lives in the U.S. since 2000, according to a new report.
The “harsh” report—released by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General, which is responsible for auditing the DEA—found that despite rising opioid abuse being reported early on before the full-blown epidemic emerged, the DEA failed to act in a timely manner, allowing the drug crisis to reach a level that could have been prevented.
“DEA is responsible for regulating opioid production quotas and investigating its illegal diversion,” said inspector general Michael E. Horowitz in a video summarizing the report’s findings. “We found that DEA was slow to respond to this growing public health crisis and that its regulatory and enforcement efforts could have been more effective.”
Opioid Manufacturing Skyrocketed From 1999 To 2016
The report noted that from 1999-2016, despite increasing reports of opioid abuse, the amount of opioid manufacturing authorized by the agency “also increased dramatically during that same time.”
It should be noted that during this time period, a number of high-profile events occurred that established opioid abuse as a national public health crisis. From 1997-2002, OxyContin prescriptions for non-cancer related pain increased from 670,000 in 1997 (a year after OxyContin went on the market) to about 6.2 million in 2002, according to a timeline provided in the report.
In 2007, Purdue Pharma and three company executives pleaded guilty to charges of false branding of OxyContin and were fined $634 million. Meanwhile, the rate of drug overdoses, fueled by opioid abuse, surged.
Too Little, Too Late
The agency waited until recent years to scale back opioid production. “It wasn’t until 2017 that DEA significantly reduced the production quota for oxycodone by 25%,” the report noted.
The report did acknowledge the agency’s recent efforts to tighten up enforcement of drug diversion (when prescription drugs end up being abused in a way it was not intended) but said that more work is needed overall.
The inspector general offered a list of nine recommendations to improve the DEA’s opioid response. They include developing a comprehensive national strategy that involves better cooperation between federal and local authorities and timely monitoring of emerging drug abuse trends, among others.