A government watchdog released an extensive report on Tuesday detailing the Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) role in permitting drugmakers to increase production as opioid deaths surged across the US.
The report outlined how the DEA, which is responsible for regulation of controlled substances, was “slow” in addressing the opioid epidemic and did not substantially restrict opioid production by drug companies until as recently as 2017, the year when overdose deaths reached record levels, while also identifying a lack of any comprehensive national strategy for dealing with the crisis.
The DEA gave the green light to manufacturers to produce “substantially larger amounts of opioids”, according to the report from the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General.
"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", Inspector General Michael Horowitz said in a filmed statement.
Horowitz also criticised the DEA for not sufficiently capturing enough information or appropriately conducting background checks on drugmakers, distributors, doctors, or prescribers to identify trends or suspicious order requests, which could have "contributed in its overall slow response to the opioid crisis".
Instead the DEA relied on the "good faith of applicants" to disclose that information, even from parties which had previous criminal offenses.
In a statement Tuesday, the DEA said it "appreciates" the assessment, and that is has reduced the quota for the seven most frequently diverted opioids for the last three years.
It did, however, recognise that only a "minute fraction" of the over 1.8 million manufacturers, distributors, pharmacies and prescribers registered with the DEA have been involved in criminal activity, and that it does "identify and root out the bad actors".
This apparent lack of management by the DEA comes despite opioid deaths growing by 8% annually between 1999 and 2013, and by 71% from 2013 to 2017.
The spike in deaths led to a barrage of criticism from health officials, states, and even the federal enforcement in attempts to hold to account those responsible for the epidemic, which led to the deaths of around 400,000 people between 1999 and 2017.
Hundreds of lawsuits have been filed against drug manufacturers and distributors by local state officials for allegedly causing the crisis due to prior knowledge of opioids' addictive properties.
The DEA, alongside the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and drug manufacturers, sets an annual quota for how many opioid tablets drugmakers are allowed to produce in the US and between 2002 and 2013, the administration permitted the increase in the manufacture of oxycodone, a highly addictive painkiller by 400%.