DOJ Announces New Task Force to Crack Down on Opioid Manufacturers

Feds will also join massive lawsuit against big pharma

Attorney General Jeff Sessions / Getty Images

The Department of Justice will create a new task force to combat the surging opioid epidemic, focused in particular on the contributions of opioid manufacturers and distributors to the epidemic's rising death toll, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Tuesday.

The Prescription Interdiction and Litigation (PIL) Task Force is the latest move by the Sessions Justice Department in its ongoing fight against opioid abuse and associated crime. It will be charged with bringing federal law enforcement's considerable weight to bear on opioid producers who may have acted negligently or criminally in their production of additive drugs.

"The PIL Task Force will focus in particular on targeting opioid manufacturers and distributors who have contributed to this epidemic," Sessions said. "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."

Those penalties will be applied to large manufacturers of opioids, which a recent Senate report suggested paid some $9 million to advocacy groups to help encourage the prescription of opioid drugs for pain relief, often without regard for the potentially addictive side effects. Those manufacturers produce drugs such as hydrocodone and oxycodone, the overwhelming majority of which are consumed by Americans.

The PIL will focus not only on big pharma, but will also turn its attention to illicit production and distribution by smaller pharmacies and other distributors. Busting such pharmacies, often termed "pill mills," has been a special priority of the Drug Enforcement Agency, which notably seized almost 500,000 pills in one operation last December.

According to information provided by the Department of Justice, the PIL will include senior officials from the offices of the Attorney General, the Deputy Attorney General, and the Associate Attorney General, as well as senior officials from the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, the Civil Division, the Criminal Division, and the Drug Enforcement Administration. Those officials will work alongside other executive departments, especially the Department of Health and Human Services, to enact the PIL's ambit.

Perhaps the most significant move Sessions announced Tuesday, however, was his decision to have the Justice Department support the enormous, multi-district lawsuit brought by hundreds of cities, municipalities, and hospitals against opioid producers and distributors. That case, which some say mirrors past litigation against big tobacco firms, seeks to recover costs which the plaintiffs say they were forced to incur due to deceptive marketing practices which directly caused the opioid crisis.

The Justice Department will support that lawsuit by arguing that the federal government has also been force to bear those costs through federal health programs and through law enforcement efforts.

"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. 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," Sessions said.

The department's latest commitments to fighting the epidemic come as news about the state of America's opioid addiction remains mixed at best. The latest data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that while overdose deaths declined in 14 states over the first half of 2017, the total number of overdose deaths increased 14 percent over that same period. Some states saw increases in their overdose death rate as high as 30 percent, the CDC found.

In total, there were almost 64,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016 (the latest full year for which data are available), of which 66 percent—more than 42,000—were attributable to heroin, fentanyl, prescription, or other opioids. The opioid epidemic is responsible for a two-year decline in average U.S. life expectancy, the first such decline since the early 1960s.

Faced with these numbers, Sessions promised more action soon to come.

"These are not our last steps. We will continue to attack the opioid crisis from every angle.  And we will continue to work tirelessly to bring down the number of opioid prescriptions, reduce the number of fatal overdoses, and to protect the American people," he said.