The Risk of Action by the Drug Enforcement Administration Against Physicians Prescribing Opioids for Pain


  • Beth Jung EdD, MD, MPH,

    1. Departments of Pharmacology,
    2. Fellow, Purdue Pharma—Cornell Clinical Training Program, New York, New York, USA
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  • Marcus M. Reidenberg MD

    Corresponding author
    1. Departments of Pharmacology,
    2. Medicine, and
    3. Public Health, Joan and Sanford I. Weill Medical College of Cornell University, New York, New York;
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Marcus M. Reidenberg, MD, Department of Pharmacology, Box 70, Weill Medical College of Cornell University, 1300 York Avenue, New York, NY 10021, USA. Tel: 212-746-6227; Fax: 212-746-8835; E-mail:


Objective.  Fear of government actions against physicians for prescribing opioids for their chronic pain patients is a cause for undertreatment of pain. This study was conducted to assess the risk of action by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Methods.  The DEA responded to a written request with a list of all DEA arrests in fiscal 2003. The Federal Register was reviewed for all revocations of DEA registrations for 2003 and 2004.

Results.  There were 47 arrests in 2003 from among 963,385 doctors registered with the DEA and 56 revocations of registration seen in the 2003 and 2004 period. The reasons for these actions included loss of medical license, fraud, substance abuse by prescriber, sex in exchange for prescriptions, and prescribing without seeing patient. For the majority of cases, there was information to believe that a documented doctor–patient relationship with a chronic pain patient did not exist.

Conclusion.  When adequate documentation exists in the medical record, the risk of civil, criminal, or administrative action being taken by the DEA against a physician for prescribing opioids for a chronic pain patient is small.