U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine and 15 of his Senate colleagues sent a letter Tuesday to a federal agency requesting a “further reduction” in annual manufacturing quotas for opioids.

In response to a similar letter sent last year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration reduced manufacturing quotas on Schedule II opioids by an average of 25 percent. Schedule II opioids are legal drugs that have the highest potential for abuse because of their addictive properties.

“Pharmaceutical companies have irresponsibly flooded states with millions and millions of opioids pills – enough, in fact, for every adult in America to have their own bottle,” King said in a statement. “And the consequences are both clear and dire: As the number of pills has grown, so has the drug epidemic. By scaling back the overabundance of these opioids, the DEA can help directly stem the tide of addiction while still also ensuring that those who suffer from chronic pain have the medication they need. Too many people in Maine have lost their lives because opioids are so easily accessible, but the DEA can – and should – take steps to help curb this crisis.”

Gordon Smith, executive vice president of the Maine Medical Association, a group that represents doctors before the Legislature, said he appreciates the efforts to ratchet down the quotas.

“I consider it a positive thing,” Smith said. “But what impact it would have, I can’t say. We are anticipating less demand for opioids.”

Smith said that in Maine and across the country, doctors are being more careful about prescribing opioids. Four of five new heroin users first become addicted to prescription opioids, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

Maine averaged more than one drug overdose death per day in 2016, an all-time record, and health experts say the opioid crisis continues. Maine passed a law that went into effect in January that limits the dosage and length of time that opioids can be prescribed, among other reforms to curb excessive use of the medications.

“The law reinforces the notion that we want opioids to be a last resort after trying other alternatives to chronic pain. We don’t want to be putting people on the road to addiction just because they are in chronic pain,” Smith said.

King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said in the letter that many of the drug quotas remain high compared with historical norms.

“As the gatekeeper for how many opioids are allowed to be sold legally every year in the United States, we commend DEA on taking initial steps last year to lower production quotas for the first time in a generation,” King and his colleagues wrote. “However, the 2017 production quota levels for numerous Schedule II opioids remain dramatically higher than they were a decade ago. Further reductions, through DEA’s existing quota-setting authority, are necessary to rein in this epidemic.”

The letter did not request a specific percentage to be cut, but asked the agency to consider reducing the quotas, noting that between 1993 and 2015, the DEA permitted oxycodone production to increase by 39-fold, and hydrocodone by 12-fold.

Among the senators signing the letter are Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois, Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Edward Markey of Massachusetts, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sherrod Brown of Ohio.

The quotas affect hundreds of drugs, including some of the most commonly prescribed opioids. For instance, the quotas have reduced oxycodone production from 139 million pills in 2016 to 108 million in 2017, hydrocodone from 88.5 million pills to 58.4 million and codeine from 63.9 million to 45 million.

Smith said the more stringent quotas might help reduce incentives by drug manufacturers to aggressively market the opioids, because the supply will be lower.

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: joelawlorph

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