Illicit Opioids:

While Greater Attention Given to Combating Synthetic Opioids, Agencies Need to Better Assess their Efforts

GAO-18-205: Published: Mar 29, 2018. Publicly Released: Apr 12, 2018.

Multimedia:


  • GAO Interactive Graphic
    INFOGRAPHIC: Stopping the Misuse of Fentanyl and Other Synthetic Opioids

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Contact:

Diana C. Maurer
(202) 512-8777
maurerd@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

Federal agencies collaborate with foreign governments, such as China, Mexico, and Canada, as well as with international organizations, to limit the production of illicit synthetic opioids. They do this by enhancing investigations, sharing information on emerging trends, helping to expand the regulation of illicit substances, and building capacity to thwart the distribution of illicit drugs.
 
Federal agencies have ongoing efforts to limit the domestic availability of and enhance their response to illicit synthetic opioids. For example, federal efforts include treating overdose death scenes as crime scenes where officers collect evidence to investigate and identify the drug source.
 

Overdose Deaths Involving Synthetic Opioids and Size of a Lethal Dose of Fentanyl

 
Federal agencies have also documented specific strategies to combat illicit opioids. However, only one of the five strategies we reviewed included outcome, or results-oriented measures—largely due to agency perceptions that designing such measures posed challenges. The Government Performance and Results Act Modernization Act of 2010 directs agencies to develop goals, as well as performance indicators. Without specific outcome-oriented performance measures, federal agencies will not be able to truly assess whether their respective investments and efforts are helping them to limit the availability of and better respond to the synthetic opioid threat. We also found that while federal law enforcement agencies are increasingly coordinating with the public health sector to share overdose information, both sectors reported ongoing data sharing obstacles and related challenges with the timeliness, accuracy, and accessibility of overdose data. Standards for Internal Control in the Federal Government states that information for decision-making should be appropriate, current, complete, accurate, accessible, and provided on a timely basis. Embarking on a
concerted effort, led by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), to examine and address data related concerns will enhance agencies’ efforts continue to understand and respond to the opioid epidemic.
 
Federal agencies have adapted to the opioid epidemic by, among other things, expanding prevention programs and treatment options. For example, agencies have increased engagement with medical professionals about the implications of prescribing practices to help reduce opioid abuse, and provided additional resources to states and localities to expand the distribution and use of overdose reversal and treatment options.
 

Why GAO Did This Study 

Increased illicit use of synthetic (manmade) opioids has contributed to drugrelated overdose deaths. Synthetic opioids like fentanyl—a substance 100 times stronger than morphine— accounted for more than 19,000 of the nearly 64,000 overdose deaths in 2016, the most recent year for which
federal data are available. GAO was asked to review U.S. agency efforts to combat illicit synthetic opioids.
 
This report examines how U.S. agencies (1) work with international partners to limit production of illicit synthetic opioids; (2) work domestically to limit the availability of and enhance their response to these drugs and how agencies can improve their effectiveness; (3) measure performance in their documented opioid response strategies; and (4) have adapted their approaches to prevention and treatment.
 
GAO reviewed documents that described agencies’ international coordination efforts, domestic opioid reduction strategies and prevention and treatment approaches, and interviewed international and federal agency officials engaged in drug control policy. GAO also interviewed state and local law enforcement and public health officials in seven states, selected in part for their high rates of overdose deaths.
 

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making six recommendations, including that agencies develop performance metrics. DHS agreed, ONDCP did not state whether they agreed or disagreed, and DOJ did not agree with GAO’s recommendations. GAO continues to believe that these recommendations remain valid.
 
For more information, contact Diana Maurer at (202) 512-8777 or maurerd@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) should, in consultation with the Executive Director of CBP's Laboratories and Scientific Services Directorate (LSSD) and the Laboratory Directors, assess volume and risk at each port of entry to determine those with the greatest need for resources, use this information as a basis for staff allocations, and document its risk-based, staff allocation process to ensure that CBP and LSSD priorities can be accomplished as effectively and efficiently as possible. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Customs and Border Protection

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Director of ONDCP, in collaboration with law enforcement and public health counterparts, should lead a review on ways to improve the timeliness, accuracy, and accessibility of fatal and non-fatal overdose data from law enforcement and public health sources that provide critical information to understand and respond to the opioid epidemic. Such a review should expand on and leverage the findings from previous federal studies. It should also assess the benefits and scalability of ongoing efforts to leverage data systems, such as the Washington-Baltimore High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas' (HIDTA) OD MAP program, and examine ways in which laws that restrict access to public health data to protect patient privacy have exemptions for law enforcement entities that could be more widely leveraged while protecting patient privacy. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of National Drug Control Policy

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Director of ONDCP should work with the HIDTAs participating in the Heroin Response Strategy to establish outcome-oriented performance measures for the four main goals set out in the strategy. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of National Drug Control Policy

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Executive Director of Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces should work with the National Heroin Initiative Coordinator to establish outcome-oriented performance measures for the goals set out for National Heroin Initiative. (Recommendation 4)

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Attorney General should, in consultation with its relevant components such as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Executive Office for United States Attorneys (EOUSA), establish goals and outcome oriented performance measures for its Strategy to Combat the Opioid Epidemic. (Recommendation 5)

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The DEA Administrator should establish goals and outcome-oriented performance measures for the enforcement and diversion control activities within the 360 Strategy and establish outcome-oriented performance measures for the community engagement activities within the 360 Strategy. (Recommendation 6)

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: Drug Enforcement Administration

 

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