Brian Mann | New Hampshire Public Radio

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.

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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.

When George Floyd's girlfriend Courteney Ross took the stand for the prosecution, she described the couple's struggle with drugs as part of the nation's deadly opioid epidemic.

"It's a classic story of how many people get addicted to opioids," Ross testified. "We both suffered from chronic pain. We both had prescriptions."

During the opioid crisis, millions of Americans became addicted to prescription painkillers, then turned to street opioids including fentanyl. "We tried really hard to break that addiction many times," Ross said.

Updated April 8, 2021 at 6:20 PM ET

Late in Patrick Radden Keefe's brutal, multigenerational treatment of the Sackler family, Empire of Pain, he offers a jarring anecdote.

It's 2019. The scandal surrounding OxyContin, Purdue Pharma and the Sacklers' role in America's devastating opioid epidemic is front-page news. Hundreds of people are dying every day from overdoses.

Updated March 31, 2021 at 11:45 AM ET

Democrats who dominate New York state politics pushed through a marijuana legalization measure Tuesday that backers say will expunge the felony drug records of tens of thousands of people.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the measure into law on Wednesday. He had said earlier that it will bring "justice for long-marginalized communities."

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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.

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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.

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People in Saranac Lake, NY have been building massive palaces out of ice since 1898. It's a folk art that requires a lot of caution and tolerance for bitter cold.

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.

Officials in New York say they're working to overcome resistance to the coronavirus vaccine in the Black and Latino communities, while also trying to make doses more readily available.

New state data released Friday showed many Black New Yorkers aren't taking the vaccine even when it's offered free of charge.

Only 39% of Black New Yorkers said they'd take the vaccine as soon as it was available to them, according to the state data. Hispanic New Yorkers were somewhat less hesitant, at 54%.

McKinsey & Company has reached a $573 million settlement with nearly 50 state governments as well as the District of Columbia and territories, over its role helping to market and boost sales of high-risk opioids including OxyContin.

Most of the funds will be devoted to paying for treatment and rehabilitation programs in communities devastated by the addiction crisis. As part of the settlement, McKinsey admits to no wrongdoing.

This deal heads off civil lawsuits threatened by state attorneys general.

Updated at 6:30 p.m. ET

President Biden named more of the team that will tackle the addiction crisis on Wednesday while promising a series of policy actions in the first 100 days.

The announcement comes as overdose deaths surge to record levels, topping 81,000 fatalities over the past 12 months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the weeks after winning the November election, Joe Biden began naming officials to tackle the vortex of crises his administration would face on day one.

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And it's not just the national Capitol. State capitols across the country are also on guard this weekend. And for more on that, we turn to NPR's Brian Mann.

Good morning, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, Lulu.

The Trump administration introduced new addiction treatment guidelines Thursday that give physicians more flexibility to prescribe a drug to patients struggling with opioid addiction.

For the first time, a medication regime has been found effective for some patients with meth addiction in a large, placebo-controlled trial.

It's welcome news for those working with the growing number of people struggling with meth addiction.

"It's progress and it's quite significant," says Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Addiction, which funded the two-year clinical trial involving roughly 400 patients.

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When Ashwani Sheoran showed up for early morning shifts at pharmacies in rural Michigan wearing his white Walmart smock, he often found customers waiting, desperate for bottles of pain pills.

"I see my patients, 15 to 20, already lined up to get prescriptions filled for morphine sulfate, oxycodone and other straight narcotics," he said.

This was in 2012 when the prescription opioid epidemic was exploding, killing tens of thousands of Americans every year.

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