The Drug Enforcement Agency’s role in the opioid crisis makes clear that law enforcement shouldn’t be regulating medicine.

By Maia Szalavitz

“The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has one job: to keep controlled substances out of the hands of people who might misuse them. Admittedly, it’s an impossible job, given that the choice of which drugs are prohibited wasn’t made rationally and they’re left to enforce laws that are routinely flouted by nearly half of the adult population.

Still, there is one area in which they actually do control the supply of drugs—and that’s medicine. Here, the agency literally sets quotas that determine how many doses of controlled substances drug companies can sell each year.

Indeed, on September 11, the DEA announced that it will cut the prescription opioid supply by 53 percent for 2020, compared to the opioid supply that it allowed in 2016 .

(The supply has already been cut by 25 percent between 2016 and 2017 and another 20 percent between 2017 and 2018, meaning that this latest cut would likely be around 10 percent less than last year).

Yet even at this apparently easy part of drug control, they’ve failed utterly. The DEA allowed a massive expansion of opioid pain reliever sales over the last two decades—while keeping a stranglehold over medications used to treat addiction.

They’ve prosecuted hundreds of doctors but very few pharmaceutical executives. They’ve delayed and distorted cannabis research for decades. And, as the Washington Post revealed on Friday, the genuine efforts they did make to go after drug distributors were hamstrung by deep connections between an alliance of pharma companies and former DEA regulators, as well as highly effective lobbying. The process was corrupted.

We need a new and better way of regulating controlled drugs.”