For 10 years, the federal government waged a behind-the-scenes war against wholesale distributors of prescription narcotics that ship drugs from manufacturers to consumers, reports the Washington Post. The Drug Enforcement Administration believed that if it could force the companies to police their own drug shipments, it could keep millions of pills out of the hands of abusers and dealers. That would be much more effective than fighting “diversion” of legal painkillers at each drugstore and pain clinic. Many companies alerted DEA to signs of illegal activity, as required by law. Others did not. Collectively, 13 companies identified by the Post knew or should have known that hundreds of millions of pills were ending up on the black market. Even when they were alerted to suspicious pain clinics or pharmacies by the DEA and their own employees, some distributors ignored the warnings and continued to send drugs.
“Through the whole supply chain, I would venture to say no one was doing their job,” said Joseph Rannazzisi, former head of the DEA’s Office of Diversion Control. “And because no one was doing their job, it just perpetuated the problem. Corporate America let their profits get in the way of public health.” A review of the DEA’s campaign against distributors shows the extent of the companies’ role in the diversion of opioids. It shows how drugs intended for millions of legitimate pain patients ended up feeding illegal users’ appetites for prescription narcotics. It helps explain why there has been little progress in the U.S. opioid epidemic. At the peak of the crisis, DEA retreated. In 2013, some DEA officials began to block and delay enforcement actions against wholesale drug distributors and others, frustrating investigators in the field.