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DEA seeks to hide some reasons for keeping painkiller numbers secret

In the federal government’s alliance with drug companies to conceal the number of prescription opioids supplied to pharmacies across the United States, the Drug Enforcement Administration and Justice Department are hiding their reasons for wanting to keep the pain-pill information under wraps.

The DEA and DOJ have asked a judge to reject The Washington Post’s request to unveil sections of a legal brief filed by the federal agencies to support their bid to shield the pill data from being made public.

The Post and HD Media, which includes the Charleston Gazette-Mail and Herald-Dispatch, are seeking to obtain the opioid shipment numbers from 2006 to 2014.

Last month, the DEA and Justice Department redacted, or blacked out, words, sentences and entire paragraphs in a brief that outlined reasons for not releasing the DEA data — what is known as the Automation of Reports and Consolidated Order System, or ARCOS — that discloses pill shipments to retail pharmacies.

The federal agencies asserted that the redactions were necessary to keep confidential information about law enforcement techniques and investigations.

Earlier this week, the Justice Department filed the same brief, only this time with fewer redactions, showing what the government intended to hide in its initial filing.

Those blacked-out passages included statements such as, “ARCOS data may suggest particular activities or patterns of activity that raise red flags about potential drug diversion that DEA will then investigate.”

Another redacted paragraph said this: “Frequently, DEA investigations remain open for years so that appropriate evidence can be gathered and DEA can assess the viability of a potential legal or enforcement action against the target.”

The Post criticized federal lawyers for blacking out seemingly “innocuous revelations,” according to a filing this week.

“Several of the previously redacted sections never needed to be redacted at all,” wrote Karen Lefton, an Akron, Ohio, lawyer representing the newspaper.

The DEA and Justice Department said all of the redactions were “appropriate,” and that the agencies were unveiling the previously blacked-out sections “in the interests of justice and openness.”

Still, other sections in the revised brief remain hidden, including information about the number of drug cases the DEA is working on and the name of the system the agency uses to track and manage those cases.

Disclosing information about the DEA’s case-tracking system could expose it to computer hackers and “enable criminals to employ countermeasures to avoid detection,” DOJ lawyers argue.

Last month, Justice and the DEA teamed up with drug companies, filing motions in federal court that seek to block the release of the opioid data to HD Media and the Post. HD Media asked for the opioid shipment information from the Cabell County Commission as part of a public records’ request. The Post asked for the same information through two counties in Ohio.

The drug firms and federal government warn that the DEA’s pill numbers could be used for “press stories, commercial advantage or even illegal drug trafficking.” Their lawyers allege that the disclosure of the opioid shipments would circumvent federal laws and nullify the court’s previous “protective order” that seals the data from the public.

The newspapers argue that the DEA data would shed light on the companies that manufactured and distributed the pills, and the pharmacies that dispensed them.

Cabell County is one of more than 500 government bodies across the United States that are suing prescription drug distributors and manufacturers, alleging that the companies failed to report suspicious orders of prescription opioids, as required under federal and state laws. The multi-district litigation has been consolidated in federal court in Ohio.

DEA spokeswomen have repeatedly declined to comment on legal briefs that the agency has filed in the case.

Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge Dan A. Polster ordered the DEA to turn over the opioid sales data to lawyers representing towns, cities and counties suing the drug firms. The records disclose the exact number of pain pills shipped to every pharmacy in the country. Cabell County was recently furnished with the data.

HD Media was the first news outlet to request the opioid shipment data.

The Cabell County Commission recently filed an updated complaint against the drug companies, citing preliminary data that show shipments of painkillers, such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, hydromorphone and prescription fentanyl, to Cabell and the rest of West Virginia. However, the specific pill numbers are redacted in the revised complaint.

The oversupply of painkillers — triggered by doctors writing an excessive number of prescriptions — has been widely blamed for starting and fueling the opioid epidemic, which claimed more than 900 lives in West Virginia last year.

In 2016, the Gazette-Mail obtained some of the same DEA data that the federal government does not want disclosed. The data showed that drug wholesalers shipped 780 million doses of hydrocodone and oxycodone — two highly addictive painkillers — to West Virginia from 2007 to 2012. A disproportionate number of pills went to the state’s poorest counties.

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