Efforts ramp up to legalize veterinarians’ ability to carry controlled drugs

Lawmakers, lobbyists express frustration with lack of clarity from DEA

June 28, 2013 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

“If I want to do a house call euthanasia, I don’t want to be a criminal.” 

To Dr. Dan Doyle and other veterinarians, the request is a no-brainer. There are times when veterinarians must transport controlled substances in order to treat their patients. 

But if the Bantam, Conn., small animal practitioner travels with certain anesthetic drugs or euthanasia narcotics, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) might consider his actions to be illegal.

For nearly two years, veterinarians across the country have received letters from DEA offices suggesting that carrying controlled substances beyond where they’re registered with the agency to keep them violates the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Commonly referred to as the CSA, the federal drug policy stipulates how the manufacture, importation, possession, use and distribution of certain substances are to be regulated. 

What’s murky, critics say, is how the DEA interprets the CSA when it comes to veterinarians, especially those who offer ambulatory services or operate mobile practices. 

“We’ve been working on this issue to try to get guidance for over four years,” said Dr. Ashley Morgan, assistant director of the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Governmental Relations Division in Washington, D.C. “We’ve asked for guidance on how veterinarians can comply (with the CSA). We’ve asked the DEA to sit down with us.” 

Lawmakers are trying to elucidate the CSA by changing the statute. 

Last week, Sen. Jerry Moran introduced legislation that, if passed, would amend the CSA to specifically allow veterinarians to transport and dispense controlled substances “in the usual course of veterinary practice outside of the registered location.” 

The bill replaces an earlier version titled the Veterinary Medicine Mobility Act of 2013, which died as an addendum to the farm bill due to political wrangling over the larger, controversial measure. Congressional heavyweights such as Sen. Chuck Grassley, a ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, have signed on in support of Moran’s legislation. 

There’s also muscle behind the bill’s House companion, introduced in April by Rep. Kurt Schrader, a veterinarian. With 85 co-sponsors and a growing number of lawmakers expressing frustration with DEA, insiders expect the bill to soon pass, perhaps as an attachment to another piece of moving legislation.

“We want certainty, and we want clarity,” said Chris Huckleberry, legislative director in Congressman Schrader’s office. “Support continues to grow for this bill. We haven’t found one member of Congress yet that thinks the DEA’s policy is rational or thoughtful in any way.” 

What’s really riled Congress, Huckleberry says, is a May 8 letter to Schrader from Eric Akers, the DEA's deputy chief of congressional and public affairs.

The letter, sent to the congressman after requests for DEA guidance, spells out that the agency believes it's OK for veterinarians to carry controlled substances to unregistered locations within their home state on an “as-needed and random basis.” 

The problem, he says, is that veterinarians practicing near state lines might regularly travel to neighboring states to treat patients. Also, the DEA’s notion of “as-needed and random” is not defined.

Lawmakers expected to hear directly from DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart, not the agency's liaison to Congress, Huckleberry said. What’s more, the response came only after legislation was introduced — seven months after Congress’ initial request for the DEA’s input. 

“At the very least, DEA should provide veterinarians with some guidance,” Huckleberry said. “If you’re going to be enforcing the law, explain to people why you’re enforcing it. Status quo on this issue is not going to fly with my boss.”

A DEA communications official could not speak to the notion that the agency’s response to the concerns of veterinarians and lawmakers has been inadequate. 

Morgan, with the AVMA, believes DEA officials might rather ignore the issue than willingly change the statute, which could open it up to other provisions.

“When carving out an allowance for veterinarians, other groups might come asking for the same things,” she speculated. “Whether you’re a registrant, manufacturing, distributing or dispensing … the DEA treats everyone the same. They don’t like having exceptions.” 

Morgan added that because DEA officials recently declined to meet with the AVMA about the issue, she’s hoping legislative efforts soon will spell out once and for all how the CSA impacts veterinarians. 

“We want to know how we should educate veterinarians about carrying controlled substances. We want this issue clarified," she said.

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