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Opioid Epidemic 'Road Map' Shows 76 Billion Pills Distributed Between 2006 And 2012


We now have a virtual road map to the opioid epidemic, a road map that shows 76 billion opioid pills were distributed across the country between the years 2006 and 2012. That's enough to supply every person in the United States with 36 pills each year.


So what this road map is is a database of information the federal Drug Enforcement Administration has collected from drug companies. The companies and the U.S. government did not want the public to see it. The Washington Post is among the newspapers that's fought for more than a year to get this data released. And the Post's Scott Higham joins us now. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HIGHAM: Good afternoon.

KELLY: So what does this data tell us big-picture about the opioid crisis that we did not know before?

HIGHAM: Well, you know, this is the most comprehensive look at the opioid crisis that I think the public has ever had. It's a database that traces the path of every single narcotic that is sold in America from manufacturer to distributor to pharmacy. And, you know, what this shows is just staggering amounts of drugs going into very small communities for the most part, places where there's, you know, two or three thousand people. And there are millions of pills pouring into these pharmacies.

The data shows some things that we already know - that West Virginia is the epicenter, continues to be the epicenter of the pill epidemic - but there's a lot of other things that were surprising. Nevada has been really saturated with pills. So has Tennessee, South Carolina. This is an epidemic that kind of knows no bounds, and it has just spread everywhere.

KELLY: Drug companies have blamed the epidemic on overprescribing by doctors, by pharmacists. And they have also blamed customers for abusing the drugs. Does this data challenge that narrative?

HIGHAM: Well, in some ways, it does. Look; there are corrupt doctors, and this epidemic wouldn't have started without them. But up and down the chain, everybody has a responsibility. The doctors have a responsibility. The pharmacists have a responsibility. The distributors have a responsibility. And the manufacturers have a responsibility. It's a tightly regulated supply chain.

And if any of those links in that chain break, the whole thing collapses. And that's what happened. Up and down the supply chain, there were breaks, and nobody seemed to stop it. And the pills just kept pouring onto the streets of America.

KELLY: I mentioned that you fought for more than a year to get this data released. They finally gave it to you Monday night. Is that right?

HIGHAM: That's correct. This data is part of a massive federal lawsuit. There are close to 2,000 towns, cities and counties that are suing about two dozen of these drug companies. And as part of that lawsuit, the judge allowed the parties to take a look at this previously secret database, and he allowed them to look at it under a protective order, meaning it was sealed from the public's view.

We filed suit, saying that this is public information, and the 6th Circuit appellate court in Ohio sided with us and the Gazette-Mail, a newspaper in West Virginia, and ruled that this data should be made public.

KELLY: One striking thing here is that I've mentioned this is a DEA database. The government has had all this data for years - suggests they should've been able to spot some of these problems and take action. Did you reach out and ask them why they didn't?

HIGHAM: Yes. The DEA said that they decline to comment because of the ongoing litigation. And when you look at this data, you understand why the DEA fought so hard to keep it secret.

Firstly, the data was such a mess when the lawyers for the plaintiffs got it, they could barely understand what was in the database because how it was constructed and maintained. And so DEA agents and others who we know within the agency have complained for years that they couldn't use this database. They felt like the leadership of the DEA wasn't putting enough a priority on this.

And the men and women who are in the diversion division of the DEA, which is the prescription drug division - it's kind of a backwater at DEA. These are not the people that do the El Chapo cases, and there's not many of them, so it's not a high priority at the DEA, unfortunately.

KELLY: And I mentioned this is data from between 2006 and 2012, so incredibly valuable, obviously, but leaves a big, old hole in terms of what we know for the seven years since.

HIGHAM: Yes, it's a massive hole. And, you know, we hope that, one day, you know, we'll be able to get access to that data because I would imagine that it's equally as revelatory and staggering in scope and its size. We'll continue to fight for the rest of the data.

KELLY: That's Scott Higham. He's an investigative reporter with The Washington Post. Thank you.

HIGHAM: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.