Opioid overdose deaths have been on the rise over the last 20 years, with 300,000 Americans succumbing to the drugs over two decades, according to a review by the Justice Department’s Inspector General. Moreover, the Drug Enforcement Administration failed to adequately crack down on the problem, according to the review, authorizing increasing production of painkillers as more and more Americans died from overdoses.
“We found that the DEA was slow to respond to this growing public health crisis and that its regulatory and enforcement efforts could have been more effective,” said Department of Justice Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz in a video corresponding with the report. He went on to state that despite the dangers of opioids, the DEA authorized increased oxycodone production quotas by 400 percent between 2002 and 2013. In 2017, he said, the DEA finally reduced production of oxycodone by 25%.
The FDA approved Purdue Pharma’s OxyContin in 1996, with a sales rep claiming that it had “less than one percent chance” of being addictive. Purdue even offered up free Oxy hats, plush toys and mugs as promotion — along with plenty of coupons for free samples. Around 2000, people started crushing the drug into a powder, so it could be snorted and injected, according to a 2003 report on prescription drugs. Around 2010, Purdue reformulated the medication — making it turn into a jelly if crushed — and people began turning to heroin, which could give the same effect for a fraction of the cost. From there, the problems got exponentially worse.
“From 1999 to 2013, opioid-related deaths grew by 8% per year,” Horowitz said. “Then, from 2013 to 2017, opioid-related deaths grew further by about 70% per year.”
The report conceded that the D.E.A. had “recently taken steps to address the opioid epidemic, but more work remains.”
In a statement to Rolling Stone, the DEA said that they “[appreciate] 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. … While only a minute fraction of the more than 1.8 million manufactures, distributors, pharmacies and prescribers registered with DEA are involved in unlawful activity, DEA continuously works to identify and root out the bad actors.”
They went on to point out that “an increasing number of individuals and corporations are facing civil and criminal charges for actions that have fueled the opioid crisis. Pursuing civil actions against some of the nation’s largest drug distributors, in fiscal year 2017, DEA secured more than $194 million in civil penalties, which is more than the total of the prior seven years combined. As of August 2019, DEA has secured more than $51 million in civil penalties in the current fiscal year.”
In addition, the DEA said they have seen a decline in certain opioid prescriptions, down more than 30 percent from January 2017 to August 2019.