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DOJ watchdog slams DEA for approving large surge in opioid production

Oxycodone
Photo: Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images

The Drug Enforcement Agency authorized manufacturers to continue producing substantial amounts of the narcotic painkiller oxycodone between 2002 and 2013, despite the dramatic increase in deaths from opioid overdoses, according to a report by the Justice Department's inspector general released Tuesday.

Why it matters: Drug companies have been the target of blame for the drastic climb in opioid overdose deaths in the U.S. over the past 2 decades, and they're now facing thousands of lawsuits from cities and other communities. The companies' defense in many of these lawsuits is that they were producing pills at a level permissible by the DEA.

"We found that DEA was slow to respond to the significant increase in the use and diversion of opioids since 2000. We also found that DEA did not use its available resources, including its data systems and strongest administrative enforcement tools, to detect and regulate diversion effectively. Further, we found that DEA policies and regulations did not adequately hold registrants accountable or prevent the diversion of pharmaceutical opioids."
— DOJ inspector general

By the numbers: Overdose deaths rose by an average of 8% from 1999 to 2013 and then spiked to 71% from 2013 to 2017, per the report.

  • The DEA, which is responsible for setting the level of narcotic painkillers that can be produced annually, approved a 400% increase in oxycodone output between 2002 and 2013. Cuts in production didn't begin until 2017.

Though last year was the first time opioid deaths dropped in 30 years, the decline in overall mortality appears to be driven mainly by a decline in the abuse of prescription painkillers.

  • Yes, but: Overdoses involving fentanyl, cocaine and meth are all continuing to increase.

Go deeper: Purdue Pharma's bankruptcy doesn't clear all legal hurdles