The DEA, Michael Jackson, and Me

How the agency’s press office cost our magazine the propofol scoop

Scoops are won through hard work, luck and even, in the case of Evelyn Waugh’s William Boot, mistaken identity. They should never be lost by the bungling of a government press office.

But that’s what occurred to my publication in our attempt to cover the death of Michael Jackson. Thanks to an odd bit of incompetence at the Drug Enforcement Administration, a vital fact in our story about the pop star turned out to be 180 degrees wrong—leaving us looking foolish in a beat we should dominate.

Here’s how it happened. As any consumer of news across the globe is by now aware, police investigating Jackson’s death found propofol in the singer’s Beverly Hills rental—a potent sedative for which he had no prescription and, more significant, no legitimate business possessing. (In the latest twist, the DEA raided the Houston clinic of Jackson’s personal physician, Conrad Murray, reportedly in search of evidence of manslaughter.)

For Anesthesiology News, the monthly trade magazine I edit, this discovery was an opening to cover what until then had been a story for the general media.

We have been on the propofol abuse issue for several years, and it’s a topic of considerable interest for our readers (it turns out that ABC News was forwarding to prospective sources an article of ours from 2007 on propofol abuse as background for subsequent interviews.

For starters, there’s the human-interest angle. Tales of drug-abusing doctors always possess a certain allure, even among physicians themselves.

Perhaps more compelling for our readers, however, is a practice issue: Is the government taking adequate safeguards with propofol, and in particular, should the DEA add the drug to its list—“schedule,” in agency jargon—of controlled substances? This prospect provokes heated debate among anesthesiologists. Supporters of scheduling believe that the drug’s potential for abuse, and, equally important, its narrow margin of safety, warrant DEA intervention. Antis insist that existing restrictions—such as locked drug carts in hospitals and log-in procedures—suffice.

All of which is a prescription for a good pro-con piece pegged to a current event of unusual significance.

Now, as (loosely speaking) insiders in this world, we knew that propofol was unscheduled, so it was a relative no-brainer to hook the Jackson case to the debate. But we didn’t know if the DEA had taken any recent steps regarding its stance on the drug, or whether such a high-profile death—assuming it was indeed the result of a propofol overdose—would prompt any policy changes by the agency.

I called the DEA on July 1, and, after a few hours, was given the following statement from the Office of Diversion Control: 1) The agency was not considering putting propofol on its list of controlled substances; and 2) it had never considered the drug one vulnerable to abuse—a statement that was curious at the very least considering what we’d already written about the problem. Still, we ran with it, sending out a news alert by e-mail; we also did a survey about the desirability of DEA scheduling, which came back about 2-1 opposed.

Feeling rather pleased with ourselves for getting ahead of the news a bit, we were stunned to see a July 15 piece in CNN quoting another DEA spokesman saying that the agency has been investigating the drug for two years! That theme was reprised in other press reports, including the Los Angeles Times, which ran an article on July 20 about investigations into propofol by the DEA and the FDA.

Angrily wiping the omelette off my face, I called the DEA spokeswoman I’d spoken with earlier in the month. After leaving her several messages over the course of the next week, I finally heard back.

This, incredibly, is the essence of what she said: I’m very sorry for the confusion, but the regular spokesman for drug diversion issues was unaware of what the agency has been doing with propofol. I realize that this issue is probably most relevant to your readers, being anesthesiologists, and I’m sorry that I was not able to provide you with accurate information. I was going to call you back but, well, we’re a small shop—only four people—and the calls about propofol were pouring in from other reporters.

Sigh. That unsatisfying explanation suggests the following conclusions: The DEA press office 1) is so small that it gets easily overwhelmed and cannot provide accurate information—or, at least, correct the dissemination of inaccurate information; 2) is as a result inherently unreliable. (By the way, to add insult to injury, the FDA took three press reps and a full week to reply to repeated requests for one statistic about propofol-related deaths—an inexplicable delay that also led to an agency mea culpa.)

We amended our article on the Jackson case, tagging on an editor’s note explaining the situation to our readers. But as a friend of mine likes to say, the cat was already out of the barn. The situation does offer a “teaching moment,” though. The next time I receive information from a spokesperson for a government agency, I’ll have to use those three little words: “Are you sure?”

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Adam Marcus is managing editor of Anesthesiology News.