The DEA is Lowering Opioid Production in the U.S.: Here’s How that Might Affect the Opioid Epidemic

In the latest federal policy meant to curtail the ongoing opioid epidemic, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced earlier this week that the overall volume of opioid prescriptions permitted in the nation’s pharmaceutical market would decrease by at least 25% in 2017.

The DEA’s new, smaller production quotas will work with the guidelines and regulations other federal agencies are putting in place to combat opioid-based addiction and overdoses. A natural partner in fighting addiction on a national scale, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a series of guidelines for physiciansprescribing opiates for chronic pain that highlight the potential for abuse and addiction inherent in the powerful painkillers. By providing physicians with the information they need to appropriately dose and manage opioid prescriptions, the CDC hopes to make doctors think twice before prescribing an opioid at all, and instead use other medications or therapies when appropriate.

But where the CDC’s recommendations were meant to inform doctors’ decision-making process, the DEA’s policy will tangibly reduce the number of prescriptions they can even offer. With less to give out, doctors will be forced to prescribe fewer opioid-based pain killers, making it more difficult to become addicted to opioids or to support an addiction that is already present. At least that’s the theory.

But the doctor’s office or emergency room isn’t the only place someone addicted to opioids might go looking for a high. Opioids are often manufactured overseas and sold illegally on the streets in the United States. Those who are already addicted and are unable to get drugs from their physician will be forced to find their drugs wherever they can.

In 2013, the DEA made a special allowance to increase the amount of prescription opioids available in the market in order to prevent the possibility of a critical shortage of the painkillers. Instead of generally decreasing people’s chronic pain, this increase in the number of pills available created a parallel rise in the number of fatal opioid-related overdoses. It’s impossible to know how many people would still be alive had this temporary increase never occurred.

The DEA’s decision to limit the amount of opioid painkillers produced in the United States is a prudent step. When companies manufacture drugs, they want a place to sell them. But it will take much more than returning to the 2012 level of opioid production to stop this national crisis. Limiting supply is one measure to take, but if we are really going to turn the tide of the opioid epidemic and save lives, we also have to increase the number of addiction treatment beds available and ensure that insurance will cover those who want to recover from their addiction. By focusing on treatment in addition to substance abuse prevention, then we will have taken important strides to save lives.