Department of Justice Inspector General Assesses Community-Based Efforts to Combat the Opioid Crisis

In the age of COVID-19, the opioid crisis rages on, an epidemic in its own right. In the last twenty years, overdose-related drug deaths have laid claim to around 800,000 deaths in the United States. In recent times, about seventy percent of these overdose-related drug deaths, more than 45,000 deaths annually, were directly attributable to and caused by opioids. In September 2020, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) issued its audit of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA’s) community-based initiatives to confront the opioid crisis.

Prior to the audit, and through 2019, the DEA employed a “360 Strategy,” which was created with the intention of countering opioid abuse in twenty communities across the United States. The DEA describes the 360 Strategy as an advanced initiative to tackle opioid and heroin use through the implementation of community outreach, diversion, and law enforcement tactics. Under the 360 Strategy, each community had an estimated budget of $775,000 to be used for their respective community outreach initiatives. In its report, OIG focused on the DEA’s 360 Strategy community outreach initiatives in its specified “pilot cities” throughout the U.S. that are fraught with opioid-related problems. To be exact, OIG: “(1) examined the DEA’s 360 Strategy pilot city-selection methodology[;] (2) assessed the DEA’s integration of a performance measurement strategy to enhance its community-based efforts[;] (3) evaluated the DEA’s collaboration with federal and non-federal entities in combatting the opioid crisis[;] and (4) assessed the DEA’s efforts to sustain progress in the communities it assists.”

OIG concluded that the 360 Strategy program aided in creating awareness about opioid-related issues, assembled anti-drug coalitions, offered training, and constructed free online resources that are accessible to the public. However, the report also highlighted various areas for improvement.

First, OIG found and determined that if the DEA were to extend the data that was used in the process of choosing cities to take part in the 360 Strategy, the DEA would better guarantee that its resources are allocated to the communities that require their assistance the most. Second, OIG determined that the DEA lacked result-based performance measures for its general 360 Strategy program and for its media initiatives. Third, OIG concluded that the DEA should strive to increase their efficacy in coordinating with DOJ grant-making agencies, which award millions of dollars to local law enforcement and community organizations throughout the U.S. for the purpose of confronting opioid-related problems. And finally, OIG ascertained possible avenues through which the DEA could additionally mitigate the misconceptions with regard to treatment aided by medication. In total, OIG made five recommendations in its audit, all of which the DEA concurred with and resolved in its response.

The Congressional Research Service in its report, “Statutory Inspectors General in the Federal Government: A Primer” points out that IGs have a tendency to disproportionately measure success only in terms of output and program compliance, rather than program outcomes and performance. In this audit, OIG concluded that the DEA either persists in predominantly relying upon output-based performance measures for its community-based opioid programs or has unveiled new measures that fail to form purposeful program aims that the DEA may utilize to improve an evaluation of program efficacy based on evidence. OIG asserted that the 360 Strategy’s outcomes and aims should be instituted ahead of the implementation of projects and should strive to answer the distinctive obstacles encountered by each of the community and enumerate the outcomes the DEA aspires to achieve within the community during the implementation. OIG further posited that these objectives should clearly establish a strategy for sustainability of the 360 Strategy that the DEA’s community partners can effectuate subsequent to when the DEA’s active participation has reached an end.

Based on its audit and insightful recommendations, the OIG’s work product was of very high quality and in congruence with former DOD Acting Inspector General Glenn Fine’s “Seven Principles of Highly Effective Inspectors General” and “Seven Additional Principles of Highly Effective Inspectors General.” However, OIG should in the future conduct a separate audit that exclusively focuses on sustainability with regard to the DEA’s spending on the twenty pilot cities’ respective thirteen-week media campaigns. It was revealed in the audit that around forty percent of each pilot city’s budget of only $775,000 was spent just on the DEA’s media initiatives and regional websites for its respective pilot communities. With such a limited budget allocated to each pilot city, the DOJ OIG’s recommendation in response to this waste and inefficient, unsustainable spending by the DEA should consist of more than mere “ . . . updates to the DEA regarding these concerns over the course of [the DOJ OIG’s] audit . . . .”