It seemed like a good idea at the time: instead of going after people who participate in the black market for prescription narcotics, the Drug Enforcement Agency decided to target the drug manufacturers and force them to monitor their wholesale distributors.

Their logic: if drug companies kept track of their own shipments and maintained close supervision over the shipping and distribution, it would be easier to prevent those prescriptions from falling into the hands of street dealers and addicts. In most cases, the strategy actually worked. However, at least 13 drug wholesale companies fell down on the job. As a result, a vast amount of prescription narcotics wound up being illegally obtained by abusers and drug dealers.

This goes a long way toward explaining the exploding rate of addiction to prescription pain killers in the U.S. over the past several years – and why law enforcement and public health agencies have had little success in controlling it.

It wasn’t just the drug distribution companies at fault. An investigation by the Washington Post found that DEA officials stopped doing their jobs as well starting in January of 2013. On one side, distributors failed to report suspicious activity (such as unusually large orders of a particular drug) as legally required, while on the other, DEA officers dragged their heels on enforcement action – and even blocked such efforts altogether. This would up hamstringing field investigators.

Three of the companies identified in the scandal are McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen, all large firms that distribute approximately 85% of prescription drugs sold in the U.S. However, most of the other companies named in the scandal are either regional operations or small businesses with only a handful of employees. And those may not be all of them; the DEA has not disclosed how many companies they have investigated who now face legal action.

The only comment received from the DEA is one administrator who said they “have good folks in place and are moving in the right direction.”

Nor have representatives of the 13 distribution companies involved have had anything to say. Some that have been sued by the DEA have tried to fight off the charges, but have either lost their cases or wound up settling them. So far, the federal government as assessed nearly $290 million in fines and penalties. The larger distribution firms have lost licenses to ship prescriptions from certain warehouses.

During court proceedings, these companies complained that keeping track of shipments across dozens of dispensaries and pharmacies is a difficult task. They argue that illegal sales have been facilitated by physicians who write questionable prescriptions and pharmacists who aren’t particular about who they’re selling to. It doesn’t help that in many cases, these prescriptions were supplied to online pharmacies, which allow patients to obtain prescriptions without having been to a doctor.

The bottom line: nobody, from the drug manufacturers, to the distributors, to the pharmacies, and even prescribing physicians – as well as the DEA – were paying attention to what was going on. Meanwhile, the number of Americans dying from opioid overdose – 165,000 since the beginning of the present century – continues to rise.

K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.