By Pat Anson, Editor
Over the next few weeks, the Drug Enforcement Administration will step up investigations of pharmacies and doctors found to be dispensing or prescribing suspicious amounts of opioid pain medication.
The so-called “surge” -- announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions – is the latest in a series of steps the Justice Department has taken to combat the opioid crisis.
“Over the next 45 days, DEA will surge Special Agents, Diversion Investigators, and Intelligence Research Specialists to focus on pharmacies and prescribers who are dispensing unusual or disproportionate amounts of drugs,” Sessions said during a Tuesday speech to law enforcement officials in Louisville, KY.
“DEA collects some 80 million transaction reports every year from manufacturers and distributors of prescription drugs. These reports contain information like distribution figures and inventory. DEA will aggregate these numbers to find patterns, trends, statistical outliers -- and put them into targeting packages,” Sessions said.
"That will help us make more arrests, secure more convictions -- and ultimately help us reduce the number of prescription drugs available for Americans to get addicted to or overdose from these dangerous drugs.”
But that kind of data mining of opioid prescriptions -- without examining the full context of who the medications were prescribed for or why – can be problematic and misleading.
For example, the DEA last year raided the offices of Dr. Forest Tennant, a prominent California pain physician, as well as two pharmacies regularly used by his patients. Tennant only treats intractable pain patients, many from out-of-state, and often prescribes high doses of opioids and other prescription drugs because of their chronically poor health. Some of his patients are in palliative care and near death.
Those important facts were omitted or ignored by DEA investigators, who alleged in a search warrant that Tennant had “very suspicious prescribing patterns” and was part of a drug trafficking organization.
“It’s not like he’s just giving out high doses of medication and running a pill mill, like they said. That to me was the most asinine statement in that whole search warrant,” said Riley Holder, a disabled pharmacist with intractable pain who is one of Tennant’s patients.
Tennant has denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged with a crime.
Last August, Sessions ordered the formation of a new data analysis team, the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit, to focus solely on opioid-related health care fraud. He also assigned a dozen prosecutors to “hot spots” around the country where opioid addiction is common. In November, Sessions ordered all 94 U.S. Attorneys to designate an opioid coordinator to help spearhead anti-opioid strategies in their district.
FBI to Target Online Pharmacies
Sessions this week also announced the formation of a new FBI investigative team, called the Joint Criminal Opioid Darknet Enforcement (J-CODE) unit, which will focus on shutting down illegal online pharmacies. Dozens of FBI agents and intelligence analysts are being assigned to J-CODE.
“Criminals think that they are safe on the darknet, but they are in for a rude awakening. We have already infiltrated their networks, and we are determined to bring them to justice,” Sessions said. “The J-CODE team will help us continue to shut down the online marketplaces that drug traffickers use and ultimately that will help us reduce addiction and overdoses across the nation.”
As PNN has reported, the online pharmacy business is booming. As many as 35,000 online pharmacies are operating worldwide, and over 90 percent are not in compliance with federal and state laws. Many do not require a prescription, and about half are selling counterfeit painkillers and other fake medications. About 20 illegal online pharmacies are launched every day.
A staff report last week to the U.S. Senate's Subcommittee on Investigations found that it was relatively easy to find and order prescription drugs online. Senate investigators used Google search to find dozens of websites offering illegal opioids for purchase, including fentanyl and carfentanil. They also identified seven individuals who died from fentanyl-related overdoses after sending money and receiving packages from an online seller.
“I’m thrilled this is something the U.S. government is prioritizing and is starting to pay attention to,” says Libby Baney, Executive Director of the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies (ASOP), an industry supported non-profit. “The Internet is part of the problem right now when it comes to the opioid epidemic and it should be part of the solution.”
Baney told PNN that when illegal online pharmacies are shutdown, they often reappear under new domain names and website addresses. Many are also located in foreign countries and are outside the reach of U.S. law enforcement.
“It’s a game of whack-a-mole in some respects,” said Baney.
Last year the Justice Department announced the seizure of the largest dark net marketplace in history, a site that hosted over 200,000 drug listings and was linked to numerous opioid overdoses, including the death of a 13-year old.