US Attorney General Jeff Sessions has announced a specialized opioid detection unit to address the drug abuse crisis afflicting the country, one of the first major actions the United States has taken so far on one of President Donald Trump's key campaign promises.
On August 2, Sessions announced the creation of the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit, a Justice Department data analytics program that will focus on "opioid-related health care fraud using data to identify and prosecute" those who are supplementing the opioid crisis, according to a press release.
The program will provide funding to 12 federal prosecutors for three years to work solely on investigating and prosecuting opioid-related fraud, specifically regarding "pill mill schemes and pharmacies that unlawfully divert or dispense prescription opioids for illegitimate purposes," the press release stated.
The districts that have been selected to participate in the program correlate with those states that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been most affected by the opioid crisis, including West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
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According to Sessions, the new resources will put authorities in a better position to "identify, prosecute, and convict some of the individuals contributing to these tens of thousands of deaths a year."
In 2015, more than 33,000 people died from opioid overdoses in the United States, and currently more than 90 people die every day, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). The number of deaths attributed to controlled prescription drugs continues to outpace those for cocaine and heroin combined, according to the DEA's latest National Drug Threat Assessment Summary. This has been the case since 2002.
(Graphic c/o The Economist)
On August 4, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) proposed a 20 percent reduction in the amount of controlled substances that may be manufactured in the United States in 2018 compared to 2017, according to a DEA press release. While not yet a law, the proposal shows the agency is increasing efforts to attack the legal as well as illegal supply chains feeding the opioid epidemic.
It is widely acknowledged that the explosion in prescription painkiller use has been a boon for organized crime as it has precipitated a spike in the use of heroin and other illegal substances in the United States. Many people addicted to prescription pain pills turned to cheaper options on the black market when their prescriptions ran out or when they could no longer afford the expensive pharmaceuticals.
Indeed, as demand for heroin soared in the United States, so has Mexico's production of the drug, fueling violent conflicts between crime groups in that country. Other illicit sources include legal pills diverted into the black market and increasingly, the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is being combined with heroin and other pills (unknown to the majority of buyers) and also sold on its own.
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The creation of a specialized unit to combat the opioid crisis is a positive step from the current US administration to fulfill a key Trump campaign promise to aggressively fight opioid addiction. In March of this year, President Trump signed an executive order establishing the Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis to research ways to combat addiction and treat those affected. That commission recently urged the president to declare the opioid crisis a national emergency in an interim report.
The new task force and the separate proposal on controlled substances from the DEA follow in the wake of a number of state-level legal actions earlier this year against opioid manufacturers in Ohio, California, Illinois, New York, Mississippi and New Hampshire over their marketing, sales and distribution practices. But this is one of the first major federal actions by the Trump administration aimed at addressing what has become the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50.
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At the same time, many Trump supporters -- who are also some of the most affected by the opioid scourge -- are demanding more resources for treatment, as opposed to ramped-up enforcement efforts. Moreover, the presidential commission that Trump established in March recommended the government "rapidly increase treatment capacity" as well as other preventative measures.
Yet Sessions himself expressed a lack of faith in addiction treatment during the event in which he launched the new opioid detection unit, which itself lacks any such measures. Treatment often "comes too late," only helps "in some cases," and "very often fails" altogether, the attorney general said, suggesting that the administration does not plan to spend much of its resources on such public services, despite the clamor for them.
Paradoxically, the DEA's proposal to limit the legal supply of painkillers could end up increasing the demand for other illicit opioids (such as heroin), which would inevitably benefit organized crime groups. Some experts have pointed to the potential benefits of cracking down on legal opioid manufacturers, but others have argued that approaches to the opioid crisis must include addiction treatment and prevention measures in order to be successful.