Government has a share in the blame

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration records released earlier this week show drug wholesalers had been shipping prescription painkillers to West Virginia in amounts so massive it amounted to 433 pills for every person in the state during a five-year period.

It is more “medicine” than could possibly have been consumed for legitimate medical reasons, and the drug wholesalers knew it. Companies such as McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen Drug Co. understood full well they were flooding the Mountain State with poison, but they hid behind the fact they were part of a three-headed monster that included unethical doctors and pain clinics willing to write bogus prescriptions, and pharmacists who turned a blind eye to cash in on the epidemic.

But here is the thing: The DEA knew it, too. While the West Virginia Board of Pharmacy is being criticized for having no enforcement mechanism in place against pharmacies or wholesalers that have racked up huge numbers of suspicious orders, the federal agency assigned to just such enforcement was doing little more than writing up reports and issuing warnings.

In fact, the DEA has been, over the past two decades, consistently increasing the number of pills it approved for production and sale in the United States.

According to John Temple, a professor at West Virginia University, the DEA let pharmaceutical companies produce 3,520 kilograms of oxycodone in 1993; in 2015, it approved production of 137,500 kilograms. Increases were also allowed for hydrocodone, morphine, hydromorphine and, yes, even fentanyl.

It starts from the top, then. The DEA, the Board of Pharmacy, the wholesalers, unethical doctors and clinics, and greedy pharmacists are all implicated, either through inaction or intent to rake in large amounts of money. Meanwhile, law enforcement is hard at work tackling the other half of the equation, the heroin epidemic recognized by most of the public as an illegal and deadly trade.

What chance do they have, if the so-called legitimate folks — many of whom are sworn to do no harm — have been given such freedom to feed this tragedy?