Attorney General Sessions Proposes An Even More Destructive Opioid Policy

Speaking to a group of law enforcement officials in Raleigh, NC yesterday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced proposed rule changes to the way the Drug Enforcement Administration sets quotas on the manufacturing of opioids. The DEA now presumes to be able to divine the likelihood a particular type of prescription opioid will be diverted to the illegal market when setting production quotas. 

The Attorney General said, “Under this proposed new rule, if DEA believes that a company’s opioids are being diverted for misuse, then they will reduce the amount of opioids that company can make.”

The DEA ordered a 25 percent reduction in opioid production in 2017 and another 20 percent reduction for 2018. The tight quotas on opioid production contributed to the acute shortage of injectable opioids being felt in hospitals across the nation. It is not only making patients suffer needlessly but places them at increased risk for adverse drug reactions or overdose. Just the other day, after pleas from numerous medical professional associations, with the shortage reaching crisis levels, the DEA announced it will begin to relax this year’s quotas. But it may take months before things improve. 

The damage to hospitalized patients is an unintended consequence of central planning and should come as no surprise. DEA administrators had the fatal conceit of believing they could determine just how many opioids should be produced for what they call the “legitimate” pain control needs of the nation’s patients. Yet even after the DEA recognized that the quotas caused harm, with these new proposed regulations they are determined to get back up in the saddle and ride that horse again.

Despite the reduction in opioid supply and a 41 percent reduction in the prescription of high-dose opioids by health care practitioners since 2010—the year prescribing peaked—the overdose rate continues to soar, having increased 20 percent from 2015 to 2016. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, nonmedical use of prescription opioids peaked in 2012, and total prescription opioid use in 2014 was less than in 2012. The evidence is that nonmedical users migrate to cheaper and easier to obtain heroin and fentanyl when diverted prescription opioids become less available. The overdose rate from fentanyl has increased at a clip of 88 percent per year since 2013, and the overdose rate from heroin increased 19 percent per year for the past 2 years after increasing at a rate of 33 percent per year from 2010-2014. Meanwhile, the overdose rate increase for prescription opioids has been unchanged at 3 percent per year since 2009.

The Attorney General and the DEA administrators seem unable to learn from their mistakes. They continue to view the opioid overdose crisis as a product of the number of pills produced or prescribed. They have been wrong about this from the get-go. It has always been the result of nonmedical users accessing drugs in a black market fueled by drug prohibition. The underground market responds quickly. It provides nonmedical users with cheaper and more dangerous and deadly drugs in response to prescription opioid restrictions. 

Not content with the damage they have already caused, regulators appear ready to double down on the supply-side approach to the overdose crisis. This means America’s hospitals can look forward to more and possibly greater shortages of vitally needed opioids, while first responders swell their emergency rooms with ever growing numbers of heroin and fentanyl overdoses.