Summary of Inspector General’s Review of the DEA’s Efforts to Control the Diversion of Opioids

On October 1, 2019 The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released a thorough report on the findings of its investigation into the regulatory and enforcement responses of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to the diversion of opioids. The report discusses the actions and inactions of the DEA from fiscal years 2010 through 2017. The OIG’s findings include:

  • From 2003 through 2013, the DEA authorized manufacturers year after year to produce substantially greater quantities of opioid pain medications.
  • Despite a sharp increase in U.S. opioid-related overdose deaths from 2013 through 2017, it was not until 2017 that the DEA took substantial measures to reduce the production of certain opioids.
  • The DEA did not adequately vet applicants prior to issuing registrations to prescribe controlled medications, even in cases in which the applicant had previously engaged in criminal activity.
  • The Automated Reports and Consolidated Orders System (ARCOS) and the Suspicious Order Reporting System (SORS), which are the primary databases developed by the DEA to track diversion, contained outdated and incomplete information, which hampered its ability to halt the diversion of opioid medications.
  • Intra-agency hostility and “toxic” working relationships within the DEA led to delays in case resolution and enforcement actions.
  • The DEA artificially inflated the scope of its enforcement actions against controlled-medication prescribers by including administrative inspections in its reports.
  • The majority of the DEA’s enforcement actions against prescriber and pharmacy registrants were not Immediate Suspension Orders (ISOs) or Orders to Show Cause (OTSCs), which are what the DOJ recognizes as the strongest enforcement tools at the DEA’s disposal.

According to the OIG, “unlike past drug crises, in combating the current opioid epidemic [the] DEA failed to develop a comprehensive national strategy that could have focused and directed its regulatory and enforcement efforts.”

The report verifies that the DEA was slow to respond to the U.S. overdose crisis. Furthermore, some of these delayed actions were inadequate and ineffective, especially given that the DEA had both the access to information and the legal authority to intervene in the crisis.