The Department of Justice has broken up a drug ring allegedly responsible for conspiring to distribute 23 million opioid pills.
Federal authorities announced on Wednesday that they had arrested 41 individuals after searching 15 pharmacies and six clinics. The case, which brought together multiple federal law enforcement agencies, highlights both how widespread prescription opioid trafficking still is, as well as the efforts of the government to crack down on it.
"The Department of Justice continues to relentlessly pursue criminals, including medical professionals, who peddle opioids for profit," said Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski. "Our use of data analytics means that no one engaging in this criminal behavior is invisible. And if you behave like a drug dealer, we are going to find you and treat you like a drug dealer."
The indictments, also released Wednesday by the Department of Justice, reveal a network of pain clinics and pharmacies that allegedly worked in tandem to illicitly divert millions of pills' worth of oxycodone and hydrocodone. These potent prescription opioids would likely command a high value on the street.
According to DOJ, the 41 arrested included doctors, medical professionals, and pharmacists who are alleged to have organized to divert pills from regular medical usage. In several of the cases, members of the conspiracy would falsely fill, or have others falsely fill, opioid prescriptions at pharmacies throughout the Houston area.
These pharmacies were often in on the scheme, according to authorities. One "pill mill" dispensed the second-highest amount of 30-milligram oxycodone tablets in the entire state of Texas, and the ninth-highest total in the nation. All of the oxycodone pills dispensed were in the highest available dosage.
Some of those pills were likely then trafficked north, all the way to Boston. A separate indictment charges a Massachusetts-based group with conspiracy to distribute oxycodone, marijuana, and other controlled substances.
"This type of criminal activity is, in part, what is fueling the 68,500 overdose deaths per year across the United States," Special Agent in Charge Will R. Glaspy of the DEA’s Houston Division said in a statement. "The DEA and our numerous law enforcement partners will not sit silently while drug dealers wearing lab coats conspire with street dealers to flood our communities with over 23 million dangerous and highly addictive pills."
The number of deaths associated with prescription opioids fell slightly in 2018, only the second drop in the past 20 years. More than 12,000 people died from overdoses involving prescription pills last year, and more than 175,000 have died since 1999. The bust announced Wednesday shows why: Corrupt doctors and unscrupulous pharmacies continue to churn illicit pills on to the streets.