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Sessions proposes plan to limit amount of opioids manufacturers can produce

The opioid oxycodone-acetaminophen
The opioid oxycodone-acetaminophen (Patrick Sison/AP)

Attorney General Jeff Sessions proposed a change to national drug policy Tuesday by limiting the amount of opioids that certain companies can manufacture each year in an effort to fight what has become a nationwide epidemic.

Under Sessions’s proposal, the Drug Enforcement Administration, which sets opioid production limits, would be able to reduce a company’s opioid production if officials believe the drugs are being diverted for misuse, Sessions said.

Sessions also announced that the DEA has reached an agreement with 48 attorneys general to share information from a database that monitors the flow of painkillers from manufacturer to distribution point to aid investigations. States will provide the DEA with information from their prescription-monitoring programs, which track the prescriptions that doctors write for patients.

The DEA’s database, known as the Automation of Reports and Consolidated Orders System, is confidential. But some information that has been released and analyzed is staggering: In two instances, millions of pills were shipped to pharmacies in tiny West Virginia towns. In Congress, a House Energy and Commerce Committee oversight panel that is investigating pill dumping in West Virginia has been keen to obtain the database.

The data is also being sought as part of a mammoth court case in Cleveland, where hundreds of lawsuits against drug manufacturers, distributors and others in the pipeline have been consolidated in federal court. The judge in the case, Dan Aaron Polster of the Northern District of Ohio, ruled last week that the DEA must turn over transactional business data and suspicious-order reports that companies filed for activities in six states from 2006 to 2014. Lawmakers and lawyers say that the data could provide a road map for the opioid crisis, perhaps showing a correlation between shipments of opioids and deaths in communities.

“Today we are facing the deadliest drug crisis in American history,” Sessions said to law enforcement officials in Raleigh, N.C. “Approximately 64,000 Americans lost their lives to drug overdoses in 2016, the highest drug death toll and the fastest increase in that death toll in American history.”

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Sessions’s speech followed another announcement Tuesday that dozens of people were charged with distributing heroin and fentanyl — also opioids —in the takedown of a drug distribution network operating in West Virginia, Ohio and Michigan.

Nearly 100 people were targeted for arrest in the operation that dismantled the multistate Peterson Drug Trafficking Organization. Authorities seized enough fentanyl in the ongoing takedown to kill more than 250,000 people, he said. As of April 3, authorities had seized approximately 760 grams of suspected heroin, 167 grams of suspected cocaine and 450 grams of suspected ­fentanyl.

Mike Stuart, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, said that his state has been particularly affected by the opioid epidemic, made worse by drug traffickers who are bringing drugs into the state from Detroit.

“The highest per capita overdose rate and the highest per capita death rate in the country for opiates is right here in the Southern District of West Virginia,” Stuart said. “To a certain degree, Huntington has become ground zero, the epicenter of the opioid crisis.

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“There’s barely a family in West Virginia that has not been affected,” Stuart added. Last year, the murder rate in Huntington increased 76 percent from 2016, Stuart said. The aggravated assault rate increased 28 percent and the number of rapes rose 24 percent, he said.

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said that Sessions’s proposed changes to drug manufacturing quotas are the result of a lawsuit he brought against the DEA to change its quota policies. He said the “perverse system” led to an overabundance of pills on the market by relying on the number of pills that manufacturers expected to sell each year rather than the “legitimate medical needs of patients.”

“The reform sought by DEA proves the impact of our lawsuit is still reverberating in Washington and producing real results capable of ending the oversupply of deadly and addictive painkillers that has killed far too many,” Morrisey said.

John Parker, senior vice president of the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, which represents drug distributors, said the group commends Sessions and the DEA “for taking a promising step forward to equip states with the critical information they need to effectively curb our nation’s prescription drug abuse crisis.”

In a statement, Janssen Pharmaceuticals said it is reviewing the new rule. AmerisourceBergen said it agrees with Sessions “that greater transparency will support a safer supply chain by providing a basis to make more informed decisions.”

Justice officials said the proposed rule and multistate operation are the latest example of the tough stance the department has taken to combat the opioid crisis.

The Justice Department also filed a statement of interest in hundreds of lawsuits against drug companies brought by cities, counties and medical institutions seeking reimbursement for the cost of the drug crisis.

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