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Sessions Vows New Opioid Task Force Will 'Aggressively' Reduce Overdose Deaths

Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington on Dec. 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions launched the Prescription Interdiction and Litigation Task force Tuesday to, in the words of the Justice Department, “aggressively deploy and coordinate all available criminal and civil law enforcement tools to reverse the tide of opioid overdoses in the United States, with a particular focus on opioid manufacturers and distributors.”

The task force includes officials from the top tiers of the DoJ, U.S. Attorneys, and the Drug Enforcement Administration. It will “use all available criminal and civil remedies available under federal law to hold opioid manufacturers accountable for unlawful practices,” DoJ said, as well as “build on and strengthen existing Department of Justice initiatives to ensure that opioid manufacturers are marketing their products truthfully and in accordance with Food and Drug Administration rules.”

Pharmacies, pain management clinics, drug testing facilities, and individual physicians will also be held “accountable for unlawful actions,” the department promised.

The task force will start with a working group to improve coordination between agencies, pinpoint possible regulatory changes, and recommend law changes.

“This is not business as usual. It is the resolute policy of this Administration and this Department of Justice to reduce these overdose deaths, to reduce addiction, and to reduce the amount of prescription opioids in this county,” Sessions declared at a news conference, noting how an estimated 64,000 Americans lost their lives to drug overdoses in 2016 and preliminary data suggest 2017 “was even worse.”

Most of the drug overdose deaths are attributed to prescription painkillers, heroin, and synthetic opiates like fentanyl.

“In the United States, I recently read that we consume the vast majority of the world’s hydrocodone and more than 80 percent of its oxycodone. It is estimated that we use many times more opioids than is medically necessary for a population our size. Millions of Americans are living with an addiction,” Sessions said. “A recent study found that the opioid crisis has cost the United States $1 trillion since 2001. Last year alone it cost us $115 billion. The study estimates that over the next three years, it will cost us another half a trillion dollars.”

Last month, Sessions announced a 45-day “surge” of DEA special agents, diversion investigators, and intelligence research specialists to “focus on pharmacies and prescribers who are dispensing unusual or disproportionate amounts of drugs.”

Sessions hired Mary Daly, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of New York and the Eastern District of Virginia, to serve as director of Opioid Enforcement and Prevention Efforts.

“We will use criminal penalties. We will use civil penalties. We will use whatever tools we have to hold people accountable for breaking our laws,” the attorney general vowed, adding that the department filed a statement of interest in a lawsuit against drug manufacturers alleging deceptive marketing of prescription painkillers.

“The federal government has borne substantial costs as a result of the opioid crisis. The Medicare prescription drug program, for example, paid more than $4 billion for opioids in 2016,” Sessions said. “The hard-working taxpayers of this country deserve to be compensated by those whose illegal activity contributed to those costs. And we will go to court to ensure that the American people receive the compensation they deserve.”