U.S. judge blocks DEA from suspending drug distributor over opioid sales

(Reuters) – A federal judge blocked the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration from suspending a Louisiana drug distributor from selling controlled substances over allegations it failed to identify suspicious orders of opioids that were diverted for illicit uses.

U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Foote in Shreveport, Louisiana, on Tuesday entered a temporary restraining order blocking the DEA from enforcing an order issued last week that immediately suspended Morris & Dickson Co’s registration.

The DEA’s order marked the first time during President Donald Trump’s administration that it had moved to immediately block narcotic sales by a distributor as the agency attempts to combat a national opioid abuse epidemic.

A DEA probe focusing on purchases of the highly addictive painkillers oxycodone and hydrocodone showed that, in some cases, pharmacies were allowed to buy as much as six times the quantity of narcotics they would normally order, the agency said.

The DEA on Friday announced it was suspending the registration of privately-held Morris & Dickson, saying the distributer failed to properly identify large, suspicious orders of drugs sold to independent pharmacies.

However in a brief order, Foote wrote that the drug wholesale distributor had demonstrated a substantial likelihood that it would be able to prove the agency’s action was “arbitrary and capricious.”

The judge scheduled a May 22 hearing to determine whether she should issue a preliminary injunction that would further block the DEA’s action.

The U.S. government is trying to crack down on opioid abuse through a number of measures, including a proposal last month to tighten rules governing the amount of prescription opioid painkillers that drugmakers can manufacture in a given year.

Paul Dickson, Morris & Dickson’s president, in a statement said the ruling “means that tens of thousands of patients, many of whom are critical care, are able to get their desperately-needed medications.”

The DEA did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

Family-owned Morris & Dickson was founded in 1841 and is the largest independently owned and privately held drug wholesale distributor in the United States, according to its court filing.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 42,000 people died nationwide from opioid overdoses in 2016, the last year with publicly available data.

Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Bill Berkrot