The US Opioid Crisis: Current Federal and State Legal Issues
The United States is in the midst of a devastating opioid misuse epidemic leading to over 33,000 deaths per year from both prescription and illegal opioids. Roughly half of these deaths are attributable to prescription opioids. Federal and state governments have only recently begun to grasp the magnitude of this public health crisis. In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released their Guidelines for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain. While not comprehensive in scope, these guidelines attempt to control and regulate opioid prescribing. Other federal agencies involved with the federal regulatory effort include the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and the Department of Justice. Each federal agency has a unique role in helping to stem the burgeoning opioid misuse epidemic. The DEA, working with the Department of Justice, has enforcement power to prosecute pill mills and physicians for illegal prescribing. The DEA could also implement use of prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs), currently administered at the state level, and use of electronic prescribing for schedule II and III medications. The FDA has authority to approve new and safer formulations of immediate- and long-acting opioid medications. More importantly, the FDA can also ask pharmaceutical companies to cease manufacturing a drug. Additionally, state agencies play a critical role in reducing overdose deaths, protecting the public safety, and promoting the medically appropriate treatment of pain. One of the states’ primary roles is the regulation of practice of medicine and the insurance industry within their borders. Utilizing this authority, states can both educate physicians about the dangers of opioids and make physician licensure dependent on registering and using PDMPs when prescribing controlled substances. Almost every state has implemented a PDMP to some degree; however, in addition to mandating their use, increased interstate sharing of prescription information would greatly improve PDMPs’ effectiveness. Further, states have the flexibility to promote innovative interventions to reduce harm such as legislation allowing naloxone access without a prescription. While relatively new, these types of laws have allowed first responders, patients, and families access to a lifesaving drug. Finally, states are at the forefront of litigation against pharmaceutical manufacturers. This approach is described as analogous to the initial steps in fighting tobacco companies. In addition to fighting for dollars to support drug treatment programs and education efforts, states are pursuing these lawsuits as a means of holding pharmaceutical companies accountable for misleading marketing of a dangerous product.