The Drug Enforcement Administration has reversed its support for a set of negotiated guidelines designed to end a controversy over the arrests of hundreds of pain specialists who prescribed powerful narcotics for their patients. The agency took the document off its Web site earlier this month, less than two months after announcing it with great fanfare.
In rescinding its endorsement, the DEA wrote on its Web site that the 31-page document "contained misstatements" and "was not approved as an official statement of the agency." The agency declined to give any more specifics, saying that it hoped to issue a statement "in one or two weeks."
Worried doctors who had worked on crafting the "consensus" document -- written over the past year by DEA officials and prominent pain management specialists -- criticized the agency's unannounced decision to disavow it. They said they were given no explanation or told whether the agency had changed its position on the contentious question of when and how doctors can prescribe the popular painkillers without risking prosecution.
Advocates for aggressive pain management said the DEA's decision appears to have been triggered when defense lawyers tried to introduce the guidelines in the upcoming drug-trafficking trial of William Hurwitz, a McLean physician.
In late September, Hurwitz's defense team sought to introduce them as evidence. Several weeks later, the DEA took the document off its Web site and said it was not official policy.
Twelve days after that, U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty, who is prosecuting Hurwitz, filed a motion in the case asking that the guidelines be excluded as evidence, again saying that they do "not have the force and effect of law."
"It seems pretty clear that they felt they had to try to get rid of the guidelines because they supported so many parts of our case," said Hurwitz's defense attorney, Patrick Hallinan. "If the Justice Department followed the guidelines, there would be no reason to arrest and charge Dr. Hurwitz." The case is scheduled for trial Nov. 3.
DEA spokesman Ed Childress said the agency intends to rework the guidelines and publish them again. He said he could not comment on whether the decision to remove them had anything to do with any legal case.
The guidelines, which were published in August in the form of a "Frequently Asked Questions" feature prominently displayed on the DEA Web site, were described at the time as an effort to codify the "balance" that both the DEA and the pain management community have long said they are seeking.
The DEA has complained in the past that irresponsible, and possibly criminal, doctors prescribed narcotic painkillers too frequently and without enough care -- letting the valuable drugs get into the hands of people who sell them, abuse them and sometimes are harmed by them.