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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.

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.

Drug deaths spiked dramatically during a period that includes the first six months of the pandemic, up roughly 27% compared with the previous year, the acting head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy said Thursday.

"We lost 88,000 people in the 12-month period ending in August 2020," Regina LaBelle told reporters during a morning briefing. "Illicitly manufactured fentanyl and synthetic opioids are the primary drivers of this increase."

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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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Updated March 24, 2021 at 4:25 PM ET

Federal bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain extended an injunction on lawsuits against members of the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, until April 21.

Drain made the ruling Wednesday from his court in White Plains, N.Y., while urging parties to move swiftly to hash out a final deal over the future of the embattled drug company.

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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When Latoya Jenkins talks about her mom, she likes to focus on happy memories like the games she used to play with her kids.

"She used to buy two bottles of dish soap," Jenkins said. "One bottle was for the dishes. The other bottle was for rainy days. She would take us outside and we would make bubbles."

Jenkins, who lives in upstate New York, says her mom, Sonya Hughey, had a hard life, first using crack cocaine when she was a teenager.

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.

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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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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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Updated at 1:22 p.m. ET

Members of the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma's CEO say they did nothing wrong during the years their company illegally marketed Oxycontin and other opioids.

"There's nothing I can find that I would have done differently," said Dr. Kathe Sackler who served on Purdue's board for nearly 20 years.

One of the world's most influential corporate consulting firms, McKinsey & Company, says it regrets efforts to boost sales of OxyContin and other highly addictive opioids.

The rare apology follows revelations in documents made public last month for the first time that showed McKinsey working closely with Purdue Pharma and members of the Sackler family who sat on Purdue's board.

Updated at 7:20 p.m. ET

Newly public documents paint a detailed and often damning portrait of the role played by members of the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, during years when the privately owned drug company launched criminal schemes designed to "turbocharge" sales of Oxycontin and other highly addictive opioid medications.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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A new rule that took effect this year in New York state is designed to stop the illegal sale of black bear parts for use in Asian medicine and cooking. While the sale of parts is still allowed, hunters will now have to document that they were taken legally.

The tiny village of Keene, N.Y., in the Adirondack Mountains is part of a trade network that supplies Asian apothecaries and restaurants from New York City to Seoul, South Korea.