The Justice Department’s inspector general said this week that the federal Drug Enforcement Administration was slow to respond to the opioid epidemic. It reduced the use of a regulatory tool and allowed continual increases in the amount of pills that could be produced.
If the 400,000 opioid-related deaths over the past 20 years count for anything, it’s that everyone was slow to respond to the prescription drug problem.
The government and several of its agencies, including the DEA, approved the medication in the first place and then allowed problems to go on for far too long. But opioid manufacturers and distributors certainly paid more attention to rising sales instead of health issues. Doctors and hospitals had to be aware that addiction cases were rising.
Worst of all, public inattention or indifference to opioids may have played a role. This probably is because drug addiction typically involved illegal narcotics, not medicine approved for pain relief. In the end, the legitimate use of opioids like OxyContin for severe pain relief cases got overshadowed by all the pain the medication created. Which is no surprise, as prescription opioids are the first cousins of heroin, whose addictive properties are well documented.
Opioid manufacturers and distributors, who are likely to pay billions of dollars to settle lawsuits over the drugs, have defended themselves by saying the government should share the blame for the addiction problem. The Justice Department’s report may help their case, but it’s ridiculous to assess a large share of the fault anywhere other than to those who made a lot of money producing these drugs.
It’s definitely puzzling that the DEA seemed to ignore the “enforcement” part of its name when it came to opioids. In 2011, for example, it issued 59 immediate suspension orders against manufacturers and distributors in an effort to keep pills from getting into illegal sales channels. By 2015, it issued only five suspensions, even though opioid deaths were rising and the addiction problems were obvious.
You can bet that drugmakers and others who benefitted from rising opioid sales were skillful lobbyists. Their talking points probably included the contention that government’s role should be to let the free market work efficiently. Now that opioids have proven themselves to be deathly efficient, no one should be allowed to claim that the government didn’t do enough to prevent everything that happened.