On January 30, 2020, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) released the 2019 National Drug Threat Assessment (NDTA).  The 152-page publication “outlines the threats posed to the United States by domestic and international drug trafficking and the abuse of illicit drugs.”  Of specific relevance to readers of DEA Chronicles, the report also discusses the abuse and misuse of controlled prescription drugs (CPDs).  While I encourage you to read the entire report, here are a few key takeaways regarding CPDs:
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On January 20, 2020, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its report Drug Control: Actions Needed to Ensure Usefulness of Data on Suspicious Opioid Orders.  The report, mandated by Congress in the SUPPORT Act, focuses almost exclusively on the need for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to beef up its capabilities for analyzing the vast amount of data provided to DEA by registrants. GAO’s investigation revealed, among other things, that DEA conducted “limited proactive and robust analysis of industry reported data” and that DEA did not have the appropriate data governance structure in place to manage drug transaction data.
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Note: The following is my best guess for what to expect in the coming year regarding controlled substance compliance obligations.  I have relied on publicly available information, my experience and expertise with all things involving pharmaceutical controlled substance, and a Magic 8 Ball in creating the list below.

Suspicious Orders

This is the year (I think) that DEA will publish a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) updating 1301.74(b).  While industry is anxiously awaiting the new regulations, I fear that many will be disappointed.  My best guess is that the new regulations will be more about changing the process for reporting suspicious orders and less about guidance for industry on the metrics to use for detecting suspicious orders.  This is in part because Congress recently codified the existing definition of suspicious orders that has been in DEA’s regulations for decades, which takes away a great deal of DEA’s interpretative authority and discretion.  There is also an argument to be made that DEA would prefer suspicious order guidance and definitions to be vague, providing the agency significant enforcement discretion.
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In a decision issued on October 30, Judge Joseph Goodwin of the Southern District of West Virginia dissolved an Order of Immediate Suspension of Registration (“ISO”) issued by DEA against Oak Hill Hometown Pharmacy, a West Virginia pharmacy. Without getting too far into the factual weeds of this case, I do think there are two or three critical takeaways related to both the adjudication of this matter and to DEA’s view of Subutex vs. Suboxone.
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Is “Suspicious Order” about to be defined?

The recently-released DOJ OIG Review of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Regulatory and Enforcement Efforts to Control the Diversion of Opioids has met with extensive media coverage focused on the sexier aspects of the story. What did DEA do or not do to stem the opioids crisis? What internal battles may have led DEA to drop the ball in some aspects of the response? These are important questions, but they have been well-covered.

Instead, we are going to focus on a handful of the nine recommendations (listed below) made by the IG and DEA’s and ODAG’s responses.
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Quota Reductions

DEA is out with its proposed 2020 aggregate production quotas for Schedule I and II controlled substances, and they have been reduced dramatically from 2019’s numbers. From the press release:

DEA proposes to reduce the amount of fentanyl produced by 31 percent, hydrocodone by 19 percent, hydromorphone by 25 percent, oxycodone by nine percent and oxymorphone by 55 percent. Combined with morphine, the proposed quota would be a 53 percent decrease in the amount of allowable production of these opioids since 2016.”

How’d They Get There?

Why the size of the decrease? Aside from the obvious political pressures attendant to legitimate concern over the proliferation of the opioid crisis and, perhaps, some less-legitimate political posturing, the DEA cites the usual factors and a significant new one. As always, DEA consults “many sources, including estimates of the legitimate medical need from the Food and Drug Administration; estimates of retail consumption based on prescriptions dispensed; manufacturer’s disposition history and forecasts; data from DEA’s internal system for tracking controlled substance transactions; and past quota histories.”


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As you undoubtedly should know by now, on April 22, 2019, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York entered into a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (the “Agreement”) with the Rochester Drug Co-operative, Inc. (“RDC”).

Specifically, the government announced that

“RDC agreed to accept responsibility for its conduct by making admissions and stipulating to the accuracy of an extensive Statement of Facts, pay a $20 million penalty, reform and enhance its Controlled Substances Act compliance program, and submit to supervision by an independent monitor.”


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After a brief hiatus, DEA Chronicles is back. As always, I will be keeping you informed on changes in the relevant laws and regulations and how these may impact your business. But, as regular readers know, we go beyond simple reporting. DEA Chronicles identifies DEA enforcement trends. We engage in policy analysis across the spectrum of issues involving controlled substances. What regulatory approaches best combine an effective strategy for combating diversion with a workable framework for the various actors in the pharmaceutical industry? What are the best practices designed to ensure compliance? What are the red flags that should alert companies to potential problems within their organizations? We explore these and all other questions regarding the enforcement of controlled substance laws and regulations.

Cote Law PLLC

So why the hiatus? The answer is simple and, for me at least, kind of exciting. After six and a half years with Quarles & Brady, I am pleased to announce that I have moved the DEA Litigation and Compliance practice to my new firm, Cote Law PLLC. I bring to my DEA practice a unique set of experience and skills. For one, I worked at DEA at a management level in the enforcement area. I know my way around the agency. I know how it operates and how it thinks. It is one thing to read a statute or a regulation. It is another to understand how the people at the agency approach the enforcement of these laws. 


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