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The DEA just cut opioid production by 25 percent for next year

The agency cites falling demand, as well as the opioid epidemic

New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman Announces Large Heroin Bust Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The Drug Enforcement Administration has reduced the amount of opioids that can be manufactured in the US next year. Production of all opioids, which are a class of pain medication, will be cut by at least 25 percent in 2017 due to less demand and growing concern around the abuse of these prescription painkillers.

The DEA regulates the total amount of a drug that can be produced each year. The 2017 change affects drugs including morphine, hydromorphone, oxycodone, hydrocodone, and fentanyl. Production of some drugs will be reduced by more than a quarter. The amount of hydrocodone, for example, will be cut by 34 percent.

more people died from drug overdoses in 2014 than in any other year on recordOne reason for the reduction is that the DEA allowed more production of opioids than usual from 2013 to 2016. In those three years, it added a 25 percent "buffer" to old opioid amounts to prevent shortages. Another reason is that the number of prescriptions being written for opioids has fallen, according to sales data from IMS Health.

And of course, one major factor is the growing problem of drug overdoses tied to opioids. These powerful drugs are often legally prescribed to people to help manage pain. Many become addicted and some later turn to heroin.

More people died from drug overdoses in 2014 than in any year on record, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than six out of 10 of these overdoses involved an opioid. Synthetic opioids like fentanyl — which the singer Prince overdosed on in April — are also killing a skyrocketing number of people. And more than 6.5 million Americans over 12 have used opioids for a non-medical use in the past month, according to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. This makes opioids the second most popular drug after marijuana, and more popular than hallucinogens, heroin, and cocaine combined (at least in terms of how many people used it in the past month).

Policymakers have been trying to contain the problem. Back in March, the CDC released guidelines for doctors who prescribe opioids for chronic pain. These provide strategies for figuring out dosing, as well as assessing risk. Several states have passed measures that limit the use of opioid prescriptions. In March, Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts approved legislation that limits first-time opioid prescriptions to seven days’ worth of pills.

The DEA has been criticized for being too lax in regulating opioidsFor its part, the DEA has been criticized for being too lax in regulating the drugs. Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois pointed out at a hearing in June that in 2014, the agency approved enough opioid pills to be manufactured "for every adult in America to have a one-month prescription." In response, DEA acting head Chuck Rosenberg acknowledged that "I think we’re part of the problem."

Such restrictions, however, can have unintended consequences. In 2011, Florida Governor Rick Scott started cracking down on pain-management clinics that were suspected of dispensing too many opioids. Prescription-drug overdoses dropped within the first year. But heroin deaths rose 39 percent, as people cut off from their legal pain medication turned to an illegal drug.

The official change, or Final Order, will be published in the Federal Register tomorrow. The DEA reserves the right to change a quota for reasons such as increased demand or new manufacturers entering the market.