On June 29, a group of agencies announced the “New England Prescription Opioid Strike Force” (NEPO). It will target physicians, pharmacists and other health professionals deemed to prescribe or dispense opioids in illegal ways. The strike force includes agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), plus federal prosecutors in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire, as well as state law enforcement.
“In the last year alone, more than 75,000 people across this country lost their lives due to opioid overdose,” said Kenneth A. Polite Jr., assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s criminal division, in the department’s public announcement. “NEPO will combat illegal prescription opioids and health care fraud by holding accountable corrupt medical professionals who seek to peddle opioids for profit, often at the expense of the lives of the women and men here in the New England area.”
The new strike force is modeled after a similar federal initiative launched three years ago in the Appalachian region, which as of May had charged 111 people. Prosecutors have alleged that these defendants distributed a total of 115 million doses of controlled substances.
The determination to crack down harder on opioid prescribers in New England, which may at times run up against the SCOTUS ruling, is badly misguided.
The NEPO announcement came just two days after a landmark Supreme Court decision that requires prosecutors to prove physicians have knowingly or intentionally violated the Controlled Substances Act in order to secure a conviction. Experts interpreted the ruling as a step towards reigning in the power of law enforcement to prosecute prescribers—and as such, a victory for pain patients, who have suffered reduced access to opioids amid crackdowns on prescribing.
The determination to crack down harder on opioid prescribers in New England, which may at times run up against the SCOTUS ruling, is badly misguided. Opioid-involved overdoses surged in the years after the federal government increased prescribing restrictions. Some people were pushed from using prescription opioids—of known dosage and purity—to far riskier alternatives in the volatile and highly adulterated illicit market. Most opioid-involved overdose deaths do not involve prescribed drugs.
Despite the Biden administration’s much-publicized, if substantially limited, support for harm reduction, efforts like NEPO are fully in line with its plans. President Biden’s drug policy agenda also calls for continued reliance on law enforcement as a tool to address drug use and addiction. His administration’s funding allocations to agencies like the DEA far outweigh any money given to expand harm reduction efforts.
New England has suffered more than most regions from the overdose crisis. All six New England states were among the top 22 for overdose death rates in 2020, with Maine and Connecticut ranked ninth and 10th. In 2021, Maine and Vermont in particular saw sharp increases in mortality compared to 2020.
Yet Vermont’s governor just vetoed legislation supporting safe consumption sites, a proven way to reduce overdose deaths, as well as several other critical harm reduction interventions. Maine’s Senate rejected a bill in 2021 that would have decriminalized all drugs, removing penalties for low-level possession. And New Hampshire resisted legalizing syringe service programs, which provide overdose prevention resources, for years before doing so in 2017; it now has 10 registered syringe providers.
Adopting bolder harm reduction policies—as well as strengthening those already in place and giving local organizations the funding to reach more people—is an evidence-based way to reduce overdose deaths. Another costly law enforcement operation to reduce access to safer forms of opioids is anything but.
Screenshot from New England Prescription Opioid Strike Force press conference.