Jus­tice Depart­ment sets 12 pros­e­cu­tors to fo­cus on opi­oids

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NATIONAL - AN­DREW WELSH-HUGGINS In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Sadie Gur­man of The As­so­ci­ated Press.

COLUM­BUS, Ohio — The Jus­tice Depart­ment will dis­patch 12 fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors to cities rav­aged by ad­dic­tion who will fo­cus ex­clu­sively on in­ves­ti­gat­ing health care fraud and opi­oid scams that are fu­el­ing the na­tion’s drug abuse epi­demic, At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions said Wed­nes­day.

He un­veiled the pi­lot pro­gram dur­ing a speech in Ohio, where eight peo­ple a day die of ac­ci­den­tal over­doses.

“In re­cent years, some of the gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials in our coun­try I think have mis­tak­enly sent mixed mes­sages about the harm­ful­ness of drugs,” Ses­sions said. “So let me say: We can­not ca­pit­u­late in­tel­lec­tu­ally or morally unto this kind of ram­pant drug abuse. We must cre­ate a cul­ture that’s hos­tile to drug abuse.”

Ses­sions said the group of pros­e­cu­tors he has dubbed the opi­oid fraud and abuse de­tec­tion unit will rely on data in their ef­forts to root out pill mills and track down doc­tors and other health care providers who il­le­gally pre­scribe or dis­trib­ute nar­cotics such as fen­tanyl and other pow­er­ful painkillers.

Such pre­scrip­tion opi­oids are be­hind the dead­li­est drug over­dose epi­demic in U.S. his­tory. More than 52,000 Amer­i­cans died of over­doses in 2015 — a record — and ex­perts be­lieve the num­bers have con­tin­ued to rise. Ses­sions has made ag­gres­sive prose­cu­tions of drug crime a top pri­or­ity, say­ing the deadly over­doses ne­ces­si­tate a re­turn to tougher tac­tics.

The Health Depart­ment says opi­oid-re­lated over­doses killed 3,050 Ohioans in 2015, with that num­ber ex­pected to jump sharply for 2016.

In June, the coro­ner serv­ing the greater Colum­bus area said over­dose deaths through April of this year rose to 173, a 66 per­cent jump from a year ago.

“That’s 173 mothers, fa­thers, sons, daugh­ters, sis­ters, broth­ers,” said Colum­bus Mayor An­drew Ginther, a Demo­crat who said state and fed­eral help is needed to fight the epi­demic.

The pros­e­cu­tors will be based in U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fices in the Mid­dle Dis­trict of Florida; the Eastern Dis­trict of Michi­gan; the North­ern Dis­trict of Alabama; the Eastern Dis­trict of Ten­nessee; Ne­vada; the Eastern Dis­trict of Ken­tucky; Mary­land; the Western Dis­trict of Penn­syl­va­nia; the South­ern Dis­trict of Ohio; the Eastern Dis­trict of Cal­i­for­nia; the Mid­dle Dis­trict of North Carolina; and the South­ern Dis­trict of West Vir­ginia.

Some Democrats crit­i­cized Ses­sions’ pro­posal, say­ing more treat­ment op­tions are needed to fight the epi­demic.

The bud­get pro­pos­als of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans and ef­forts to re­peal the Pa­tient Pro­tec­tion and Af­ford­able Care Act, in­clud­ing the ex­pan­sion of Med­i­caid, “would likely make the opi­oid epi­demic worse,” said Mandy McClure, a spokesman for the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee.

In May, Ses­sions in­structed the na­tion’s fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors to bring the tough­est charges pos­si­ble against most crime sus­pects. Crit­ics as­sailed the move as a re­turn to failed drug-war poli­cies that un­duly af­fected mi­nori­ties and filled pris­ons with non­vi­o­lent of­fend­ers.

The an­nounce­ment was a re­ver­sal of Obama-era poli­cies that is sure to send more peo­ple to prison and for much longer terms.

Ad­vo­cates warned that the shift would crowd fed­eral pris­ons and strain Jus­tice Depart­ment re­sources. Some in­volved in crim­i­nal jus­tice dur­ing the drug war feared the hu­man im­pact would look sim­i­lar.

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