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Review Of The Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA)
Control Of The Diversion Of Controlled Pharmaceuticals

Report Number I-2002-010
September 2002


The Office of the Inspector General, Evaluation and Inspections Division, reviewed the Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) Office of Diversion Control (OD). Our objective was to assess the DEA's investigative response to the diversion of controlled pharmaceuticals.

Diversion occurs when legally produced controlled pharmaceuticals are illegally obtained for non-medical use. Diversion commonly involves physicians or pharmacists selling prescriptions to drug dealers or abusers, employees stealing from drug inventories, individuals improperly obtaining multiple prescriptions from different doctors, individuals forging prescriptions, or individuals robbing pharmacies.

According to the DEA, although the quantity of controlled pharmaceuticals diverted is unknown, controlled pharmaceuticals account for 30 percent of all reported deaths and injuries associated with drug abuse.1 In addition, the DEA Administrator, in a speech to the American Pain Society in March 2002, noted that the number of people who abuse controlled pharmaceuticals each year approximately equals the number who abuses cocaine - 2 to 4 percent of the U.S. population. Further, a recent study conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services identified controlled pharmaceuticals as factors in 25 percent of all reported overdose deaths and 20 percent of all emergency room visits relating to drug abuse.

Within the DEA, the OD is responsible for overseeing the distribution system for controlled pharmaceuticals and regulated chemicals, and for preventing the diversion of those substances. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 requires all businesses that manufacture or distribute controlled pharmaceuticals; all health professionals who dispense, administer, or prescribe controlled pharmaceuticals; and all pharmacies that fill prescriptions to register with the DEA. At DEA field offices throughout the United States, diversion investigators review applications of potential registrants, monitor existing registrants through cyclical investigations, and investigate allegations of diversion of controlled pharmaceuticals and regulated chemicals.2

Our review found that DEA's enforcement efforts have not adequately addressed the problem of controlled pharmaceutical diversion. Despite the widespread problem of pharmaceutical abuse, the DEA has dedicated only 10 percent of its field investigator positions to diversion investigations. Since 1990, the number of diversion investigators as a percentage of total DEA investigators has decreased by 3 percent.

We also found the DEA has failed to provide sufficient DEA special agents to assist diversion investigators in conducting investigations of controlled pharmaceutical diversion. Diversion investigators lack law enforcement authority and therefore must request either DEA special agents or local law enforcement officers to perform essential activities such as conducting surveillance, issuing search warrants, managing confidential informants, and performing undercover drug purchases. We found that difficulties in obtaining law enforcement assistance have caused delays in developing cases for prosecution. The quality of investigations also has suffered because of the need to use investigators external to the diversion control program who lack experience in conducting controlled pharmaceutical investigations, which often require establishing the criminal intent of doctors, pharmacists, and other medical professionals. Over the past 25 years, DEA officials have acknowledged these problems and proposed solutions ranging from vesting diversion investigators with criminal investigative authority to assigning special agents to diversion units on a full-time basis. However, the DEA still has not implemented an effective solution.

In addition, we found that the DEA provides minimal intelligence support to its diversion investigators, instead focusing its intelligence efforts on developing and analyzing intelligence information on illicit drug trafficking. The one potential intelligence resource currently available to diversion investigators is the Automation of Reports and Consolidated Orders System (ARCOS). However, diversion investigators stated that ARCOS reports are limited in their value as an intelligence resource because of problems of completeness, accuracy, and timeliness. Diversion staff at Headquarters and in the field offices told the OIG that they do not have the adequate resources to analyze and develop ARCOS data into useful intelligence products.

Despite limitations with ARCOS, we found that the DEA is in the process of increasing its intelligence support to diversion investigators in other ways. It is currently developing the Internet Online Investigations Project, which will aid in the identification of web sites that are possibly involved in the diversion of controlled substances. In addition, the DEA intends to establish a diversion intelligence group by the end of fiscal year 2002.

While the DEA has traditionally focused the bulk of its resources on disrupting illicit drug trafficking operations, we believe it is critical for the DEA to devote more resources to counteract the widespread controlled pharmaceutical diversion problem. We recommend the DEA:


  1. Drug abuse is not always associated with the diversion of controlled pharmaceuticals. The data available for our analysis does not specifically identify what percentage of the problem is attributable to diversion of controlled pharmaceuticals versus the abuse of legally obtained prescriptions.

  2. Diversion investigators are not criminal investigators. They do not have arrest authority and cannot perform law enforcement functions such as serving warrants, conducting surveillance, managing confidential informants, and working undercover.