DEA Fights War on Drugs With Both Hands Tied Behind its Back

On average, 130 Americans die each day from an opioid overdose. More than 700,000 people died from drug overdoses from 1999 to 2017, with around 70% involving an opioid in 2017.

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was created to enforce controlled substance laws and regulations, and to bring to justice anyone involved in the growing, manufacturing, or distribution of controlled substances. As the third wave of the opioid epidemic crashes over American soil, serious questions about the efficacy of the DEA’s efforts to curb this epidemic have echoed throughout the oversight community, amplified by extensive reporting by media outlets like the Washington Post.

In July, the Washington Post turned a DEA database tracking the paths of pain pills sold in the United States into a virtual roadmap of the epidemic. The project illuminated the magnitude of the proliferation after a year-long legal battle over de-classification and access to the database, which the DEA and the drug industry fought to keep under wraps.

Why so shy? The DEA was likely interested in shielding these statistics because the story they tell implicates the efficacy of the agency. The DEA operates under a framework called the 360 Strategy, focused on eliminating drug trafficking organizations and gangs fueling violence on the streets, curbing cycles of addiction in communities, partnering with the medical community and others to raise awareness of the dangers of prescription opioid misuse and the link to heroin, and building community organizations best positioned to provide long-term help and support for building drug-free communities.

The ambitious strategy has failed to meet its goals, due in part to a lack of specific and outcome-oriented performance measures. Multiple oversight community actors have taken steps to analyze the DEA’s efforts and have overwhelmingly arrived at shared conclusions.

In 2018, a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that the 360 Strategy did not include goals or performance measures for two critically important parts of the strategy: enforcement operations and diversion control initiatives.

Enforcement operations generally refer to federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies work to disrupt drug trafficking, while diversion control initiatives strive to prevent, detect, and investigate the diversion of legitimately made and controlled  pharmaceuticals and listed chemicals while ensuring an adequate and uninterrupted supply for legitimate medical, commercial, and scientific needs. Diversion Control is specifically responsible for ensuring that all transactions of controlled substances occur within the closed and regulated system of distribution established by Congress.

The GAO recommended that the DEA Administrator establish goals and outcome-oriented performance measures for enforcement and diversion control activities and establish outcome-oriented performance measures for community engagement activities within the 360 Strategy.[1]

The Department of Justice Inspector General’s Office (DOJ IG) recent report on DEA regulations underscored the GAO’s findings, specifically noting that the DEA’s 360 Strategy does not specifically address diversion control enforcement efforts and cannot determine how the program’s diversion-related activities impact the field divisions’ diversion control enforcement capabilities.

In fact, the DOJ IG report found that the DEA “was slow to respond to the significant increase in the use and diversion of opioids since 2000” and was not using “its available resources, including its data systems and strongest administrative enforcement tools” to regulate diversion effectively.

Further, the report found that the agency, which receives over 3 billion dollars a year, fails to use available resources and permits licensure loopholes which allow drug manufacturers and practitioners to re-apply for licenses that have been revoked only days after revocation and permits prescribers to withhold disclosing criminal activity.

The Washington Post hailed the report as “the most comprehensive examination yet of the government agency responsible for preventing opioid painkillers intended for legitimate pain patients from spilling onto the black market.”

These finding should outrage every American taxpayer, the thousands of families who have lost loved ones to opioid addiction, and every member of Congress and the executive branch. The DEA must immediate enact the DOJ OIG recommendations. Given the IG’s finding that the agency was misappropriating resources, Congress must initiate investigations to determine where and with whom this rot originates.

Flowery goals and aspirations are useless without strategically coordinated diversion control enforcement. The DOJ report’s findings build on warnings from other watchdog agencies, and if followed, can spur a much-needed overhaul of the DEA’s mismanaged efforts to curb the opioid epidemic.

[1] Id. at 65