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DEA moves to revoke major drug distributor's license over opioid crisis failures

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration chief Anne Milgram speaks during a news conference in April. On Friday, the DEA announced it will strip one of the nation's largest drug distributors of its license to sell highly addictive painkillers after determining it failed to flag thousands of suspicious orders at the height of the opioid crisis.
Susan Walsh
/
AP
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration chief Anne Milgram speaks during a news conference in April. On Friday, the DEA announced it will strip one of the nation's largest drug distributors of its license to sell highly addictive painkillers after determining it failed to flag thousands of suspicious orders at the height of the opioid crisis.

Updated May 26, 2023 at 12:31 PM ET

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says it will strip one of the nation's largest drug distributors of its license to sell and ship highly addictive painkillers within 90 days if some kind of negotiated settlement isn't reached.

In a statement, DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said executives at Morris & Dickson failed to accept responsibility for the "full extent of their wrongdoing ... and the potential harm it caused."

If finalized, this action taken Friday would hobble the nation's fourth-largest drug wholesaler. It comes after a controversial four-year delay.

In a statement sent to NPR, the Louisiana-based company said it remains in talks with the DEA as part of a last-ditch attempt to avert the revocation of its opioid license.

"Morris & Dickson is grateful to the DEA Administrator for delaying the effective date of the order to allow time to settle these old issues, which has been our goal since this started years ago," the statement said.

The company faces accusations it shipped highly addictive opioid pain pills for years despite evidence the drugs were being misused.

Fatal overdoses from prescription pain pills still kill more than 15,000 Americans a year. Public health experts say prescription opioid abuse opened the U.S. to an even more deadly crisis involving heroin and fentanyl.

Friday's action has been long awaited. In 2019, a federal judge recommended the DEA revoke Morris & Dickson's opioid license because of the company's "cavalier disregard" for safety rules.

In a 68-page order issued Friday, the DEA acknowledged its decision to revoke the company's opioid license took "longer than typical for the agency."

Federal officials blamed the pandemic and actions by the company for delays.

An investigation by The Associated Press also found that a top DEA official, Louis Milione, served previously as a consultant for Morris & Dickson as part of the company's effort to avoid punishment. The DEA says after Milione took his government post in 2021, he recused himself any role in the Morris & Dickson matter.

U.S. regulatory agencies, including the DEA, have faced criticism in recent years for failing to crack down on corporations that manufactured, distributed or sold opioid pain pills.

Other drug distributors involved in the opioid crisis have been allowed to continue shipping pain pills but agreed to tighter oversight and will pay more than $21 billion in settlements over the next 18 years.

In its statement, Morris and Dickson said it has also revamped its "compliance systems and processes" in an effort to improve safety.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.