Brian Mann

Updated May 3, 2021 at 9:51 PM ET

A senior Drug Enforcement Administration official told NPR efforts to target drug cartels operating inside Mexico have unraveled because of a breakdown in cooperation between law enforcement agencies and militaries in the two countries.

For months, members of the Sackler family that owns Purdue Pharma, the maker of Oxycontin, have portrayed their bid for immunity from future opioid lawsuits as a kind of fait accompli, a take-it-or-leave-it fix to a legal morass.

The Biden administration says new federal guidelines released Tuesday will allow far more medical practitioners to prescribe buprenorphine, a drug proven to reduce opioid relapses and overdose deaths.

The change lowers regulatory hurdles that critics believe sharply limit use of the life-saving medication at a time when drug deaths are surging.

"We have made this much easier for physicians but also for other medical practitioners," said Dr. Rachel Levine, assistant secretary of health, speaking with NPR.

Researchers gathered for a conference on addiction this week received a grim update on the growing spread of street drugs laced with deadly synthetic opioids including fentanyl.

The trend contributed to a stark rise in overdoses that left more than 90,000 Americans dead during the 12-month period ending in September 2020, according to the latest data.

Drug deaths spiked dramatically during a period that includes the first six months of the pandemic, up roughly 27% compared with the previous year, the acting head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy said Thursday.

"We lost 88,000 people in the 12-month period ending in August 2020," Regina LaBelle told reporters during a morning briefing. "Illicitly manufactured fentanyl and synthetic opioids are the primary drivers of this increase."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Imagine you're part of a project that goes horribly wrong at work, causing a scandal, costing your company a ton of money, maybe even putting people at risk. Now imagine after that kind of performance your company rewards you with a raise and a bonus.

Critics say that's happening right now with CEOs at big drug and health care companies tangled up in the opioid crisis.

"When leadership fails ... the board of directors have to be willing to hold their executives accountable," said Shawn Wooden, Connecticut's state treasurer.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Updated March 24, 2021 at 4:25 PM ET

Federal bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain extended an injunction on lawsuits against members of the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, until April 21.

Drain made the ruling Wednesday from his court in White Plains, N.Y., while urging parties to move swiftly to hash out a final deal over the future of the embattled drug company.

Purdue Pharma, the maker of Oxycontin, conducted what may be the most extensive investigation yet of the Sackler family, exploring whether they committed crimes or financial improprieties, but the company has kept most of its findings secret.

Under a bankruptcy plan filed late Monday night, Purdue Pharma would pay roughly $500 million in cash up front to settle hundreds of thousands of injury claims linked to the company's role in the deadly opioid epidemic.

The company said additional payments would be spread over the next decade, including installments on roughly $4.2 billion promised by members of the Sackler family who own the firm.

When the pandemic hit, visits to hospital emergency departments plummeted by more than 40%. People were scared of catching the coronavirus.

But Kristin Holland, a researcher at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found patients experiencing drug-related crises needed help so desperately they kept coming.

"All overdoses and opioid overdoses...those were the only two [categories] for which we saw an increase," Holland said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When Latoya Jenkins talks about her mom, she likes to focus on happy memories like the games she used to play with her kids.

"She used to buy two bottles of dish soap," Jenkins said. "One bottle was for the dishes. The other bottle was for rainy days. She would take us outside and we would make bubbles."

Jenkins, who lives in upstate New York, says her mom, Sonya Hughey, had a hard life, first using crack cocaine when she was a teenager.

As the nation's addiction crisis deepened, Tamara Beetham, who studies health policy at Yale University, set out to answer a simple question: What happens when people try to get help?

Her first step was to create a kind of undercover identity — a 26-year-old, using heroin daily. Using this fictional persona, her research team called more than 600 residential treatment centers all over the country.

"We'd kind of call and say, I'm looking to, you know, start treatment and kind of go from there," Beetham said.

Pages