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Inaction

DEA asleep at the switch during opioid crisis

More than 70,000 Americans — 974 of them in West Virginia and 5,111 in Ohio — died of drug overdoses in 2017. How many of them might be alive today if officials at the Drug Enforcement Administration had not been asleep at the switch?

Fighting, then getting out of, the Vietnam War was a national priority for more than a decade during the 1960s and 1970s. Yet fewer Americans died in that entire war than lose their lives to drug overdoses every year.

So why was Washington apparently absent without leave for so long while the drug abuse crisis, primarily involving opioids, was reaping such a terrible toll?

Federal government watchdogs seem to be coming to the conclusion the DEA did not react swiftly and adequately enough. A report by the Justice Department’s inspector general concludes the DEA was “slow to respond” to the epidemic. It adds that the agency’s policymakers did not devise an effective strategy to deal with the crisis.

If anything, the DEA’s policies aggravated the problem. From 2002-13, the DEA increased the annual quotas for manufature of Oxycodone, an opiod painkiller, by nearly 400%, the inspector general found.

It appears the DEA was not shaken out of its stupor until 2017, when West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey filed a lawsuit demanding the quotas be reduced. That finally occurred, with production limits for next year reduced substantially.

“The reality is the DEA grossly mismanaged its charge to protect American lives,” Morrisey said this week.

Obviously, he is correct. One wonders if anyone in Washington has asked whether DEA officials responsible for years of bad decisions on drug abuse should be retained in their jobs.

Historians have debated how many lives might have been saved had U.S. policy toward the Vietnam War been different. At some point, perhaps they will ask the same question about drug abuse.

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