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An arrangement of pills of the opioid oxycodone-acetaminophen in New York. Photo / Patrick Sison / AP

A new law backed by opioid distributors and manufacturers is making it harder for the Drug Enforcement Administration to hold companies accountable for violating drug laws, according to retired DEA investigators.

The officials' accounts are the latest component of a deep-rooted investigation by the Washington Post and "60 Minutes," which initially exposed how the drug legislation was derailing the DEA's efforts to crack down on the opioid epidemic. That investigation ultimately led to the withdrawal of Rep. Tom Marino's drug czar nomination.

Why it matters: The opioid epidemic "claimed nearly 200,000 lives between 2000 and 2016," according to the Post.

Background:

  • The Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act of 2016 was passed in Congress by a group of lawmakers supported by powerful drug companies.
  • Marino was the bill's main sponsor in the House, and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) negotiated its final version with the DEA in the Senate.
  • Prior to the law, the DEA was able to immediately suspend drug shipments that posed an “imminent danger" to the community. Now the DEA must prove that a company’s actions represent “a substantial likelihood of an immediate threat,” according to the Post. The law also allows companies to submit “corrective action plans” before the DEA can sanction them, something one retired DEA employee called a "get out of jail free card."

What they're saying: DEA investigators say the law has undermined their agency and thwarted several of their efforts, such as stopping suspicious shipments of prescription pain pills and enforcing pharmaceuritical regulations.

The other side: Defenders of the law argue it protects patients' access to necessary prescriptions by encouraging cooperation between the DEA and drug companies. “This was an effort to ensure that DEA’s praiseworthy efforts to stem abuse don’t end up hurting legitimate patients,” Hatch said during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday.

What's next: The DEA investigators' full interviews with the Washington Post and "60 Minutes" will be published and broadcast on Sunday.

Go deeper

Updated 1 hour ago - Health

First North American Omicron cases identified in Canada

COVID-19 testing personnel at Toronto Pearson International Airport in September. Photo: Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The first two cases of the new Omicron variant have been detected in North America, the Canadian government announced Sunday evening.

Driving the news: The World Health Organization has named Omicron a "variant of concern," but cautioned earlier on Sunday that it is not yet clear whether it's more transmissible than other strains of COVID-19.

5 hours ago - Health

WHO: Not yet known whether Omicron leads to more severe disease

Photo illustration: Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The World Health Organization on Sunday said that it is not yet clear whether the newly discovered Omicron variant is more transmissible than other strains of the COVID-19 virus.

Why it matters: The agency's statement comes as the variant, discovered in South Africa, has already been detected in European and Asian countries.

10 hours ago - Health

Fauci: Omicron variant will "inevitably" be found in U.S.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, cautioned on Sunday that the COVID-19 Omicron variant will "inevitably" be found in the United States.

Driving the news: Fauci, Biden's chief medical adviser, told ABC's George Stephanopoulos on "This Week" that U.S. officials will meet with colleagues from South Africa later on Sunday to try to determine the severity of the cases, as countries scramble to learn more about the variant.