(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Donna Leinwand Leger, USA TODAY
The DEA accused Walgreens on Friday of endangering public safety and barred the company from shipping oxycodone and other controlled drugs from its Jupiter, Fla., distribution center.
The move is the latest action by the Drug Enforcement Agency in a crackdown on pharmaceutical companies, drug distributors and drugstore chains that sell large amounts of highly addictive narcotics. Earlier this week, the DEA revoked the controlled substances licenses for two CVS pharmacies in Sanford, Fla., accused of dispensing excessive amounts of OxyContin.
Abuse of prescription narcotics is an epidemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overdose deaths from opiod pain relievers account for more deaths than heroin and cocaine combined.
The DEA says Walgreens failed to maintain proper controls to ensure it didn't dispense drugs to addicts and drug dealers. Large increases in narcotic sales could be a sign that drug addicts and dealers are using fake prescriptions to purchase the drugs, the agency says. The addicts and dealers often get the prescriptions from clinics, known as "pill mills," where doctors prescribe the drugs after only cursory examinations.
Six of Walgreens' Florida pharmacies ordered more than a million pills a year, the DEA said. In 2011, the average pharmacy in the U.S. ordered 73,000 oxycodone tablets a year.
One pharmacy in Fort Myers went from ordering 95,800 pills in 2009 to 2.2 million pills in 2011, the DEA said. Another pharmacy in Hudson, a town of 34,000 people near Clearwater, purchased 2.2 million pills in 2011, the DEA said.
Walgreens said in a statement that it has taken steps to bolster its monitoring and reporting of controlled substance purchases. The number of tablets dispensed by its pharmacies dropped 35% from June 2011 to March 2012, the company said.
"We take our obligations under the Controlled Substances Act very seriously," the company said.
The DEA issues immediate suspension orders when it believes a registrant, such as a pharmacy or a doctor, is "an imminent danger to the public safety."
All DEA licensees "have an obligation to ensure that medications are getting into the hands of legitimate patients," said Mark Trouville, DEA special agent in charge of the Miami Field Division. "When they choose to look the other way, patients suffer and drug dealers prosper."
The Jupiter facility, one of 12 distribution centers owned by the Walgreens Corp., distributes controlled substances to Walgreens pharmacies on the East Coast, including Florida.
Since 2009, Walgreens Jupiter has been the single largest distributor of oxycodone in Florida, the DEA said. Over the past three years, its market share has increased, and 52 Walgreens are among the top 100 oxycodone purchasers in the state, the DEA said.