WASHINGTON — In April 2016, at the height of the deadliest drug epidemic in US history, Congress effectively stripped the Drug Enforcement Administration of its most potent weapon against large drug companies suspected of spilling prescription narcotics onto the nation’s streets.
By then, the opioid war had claimed 200,000 lives, more than three times the number of US military deaths in the Vietnam War. Overdose deaths continue to rise. There is no end in sight.
A handful of members of Congress, allied with the nation’s major drug distributors, prevailed upon the DEA and the Justice Department to agree to a more industry-friendly law, undermining efforts to stanch the flow of pain pills, according to an investigation by The Washington Post and ‘‘60 Minutes.’’
The DEA had opposed the effort for years.
The law was the crowning achievement of a multifaceted campaign by the drug industry to weaken aggressive DEA enforcement efforts against drug distribution companies that were supplying corrupt doctors and pharmacists who peddled narcotics to the black market.
The industry worked behind the scenes with lobbyists and key members of Congress, pouring more than a million dollars into their election campaigns.
The chief advocate of the law that hobbled the DEA was Representative Tom Marino, a Pennsylvania Republican who is now President Trump’s nominee to become the nation’s next drug czar.
Marino spent years trying to move the law through Congress. It passed after Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, negotiated a final version with the DEA.
For years, some drug distributors were fined on the grounds of repeatedly ignoring warnings from the DEA to shut down suspicious sales of hundreds of millions of pills, while they racked up billions of dollars in sales.
The new law makes it virtually impossible for the DEA to freeze suspicious narcotic shipments from the companies, according to internal agency and Justice Department documents and an independent assessment by the DEA’s chief administrative law judge in a soon-to-be-published law review article.
That powerful tool had allowed the agency to immediately prevent drugs from reaching the street.
Political action committees representing the industry contributed at least $1.5 million to the 23 lawmakers who sponsored or cosponsored four versions of the bill, including nearly $100,000 to Marino and $177,000 to Hatch. Overall, the drug industry spent $106 million lobbying Congress on the bill and other legislation between 2014 and 2016, according to lobbying reports.
‘‘The drug industry, the manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors, and chain drugstores, have an influence over Congress that has never been seen before,’’ said Joseph T. Rannazzisi, who ran the DEA’s division responsible for regulating the drug industry and led a decadelong campaign of aggressive enforcement until he was forced out of the agency in 2015.
‘‘I mean, to get Congress to pass a bill to protect their interests in the height of an opioid epidemic just shows me how much influence they have,’’ Rannazzisi said.
Besides the sponsors and cosponsors of the bill, few lawmakers knew the true impact the law would have. It sailed through Congress and was passed by unanimous consent, a parliamentary procedure reserved for bills considered to be noncontroversial.
The White House was equally unaware of the bill’s import when President Barack Obama signed it into law, according to interviews with former senior administration officials.
Top officials at the White House and the Justice Department have declined to discuss how the bill came to pass.
Michael Botticelli, who led the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy at the time, said neither Justice nor the DEA objected to the bill, removing a major obstacle to the president’s approval.
The bill also was reviewed by the White House Office of Management and Budget. ‘‘Neither the DEA nor the Justice Department informed OMB about the policy change in the bill,’’ a former senior OMB official with knowledge of the issue said.
The DEA’s top official at the time, acting administrator Chuck Rosenberg, declined repeated requests for interviews. A senior DEA official said the agency fought the bill for years in the face of growing pressure from key members of Congress and industry lobbyists. But the DEA lost the battle.
Loretta E. Lynch, who was attorney general at the time, declined a recent interview request.
Obama also declined to discuss the law. His spokeswoman, Katie Hill, referred reporters to Botticelli’s statement.
The DEA and Justice Department have denied or delayed more than a dozen requests filed by The Post and ‘‘60 Minutes’’ under the Freedom of Information Act for public records that might shed additional light on the matter.
Some of those requests have been pending for nearly 18 months. The Post is now suing the Justice Department in federal court for certain records.
Marino declined repeated requests for comment. In the past, the representative has said the DEA was too aggressive and needed to work more collaboratively with drug companies.
Drug industry officials and experts blame the origins of the opioid crisis on the overprescribing of pain pills by doctors. The industry notes that the DEA approves the total amount of opioids produced each year.
The industry has long complained that federal prescription drug laws were too vague about the responsibility of companies to report suspicious orders of narcotics.
The industry also complained that the DEA communicated poorly with companies — citing a 2015 report by the Government Accountability Office — and was too punitive when narcotics were diverted out of the legal drug distribution chain.