The U.S. Justice Department said Tuesday that a new task force will target the makers and distributors of prescription painkillers who, according to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have contributed to an epidemic of fatal overdoses from opioids by selling too much of the addictive drugs.
"We will use criminal penalties, we will use civil penalties," said Sessions in announcing the Prescription Interdiction and Litigation (PIL) Task Force.
"We will use whatever laws and tools we have to hold people accountable if they break our laws," said Sessions, who also said that opioid abuse is "driving the deadliest drug crisis in American history."
Sessions said he is ordering the task force "to examine existing state and local government lawsuits against opioid manufacturers to determine if we can be of assistance."
"In fact, we are already getting involved in these cases. I am announcing today that the department will file a statement of interest in a lawsuit against a number of opioid manufacturers and distributors for allegedly using false, deceptive, and unfair marketing of opioid drugs," Sessions said.
The Justice Department said that lawsuit is actually a multidistrict action involving hundreds of lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and distributors.
The plaintiffs include many cities, municipalities, and medical institutions "that have borne the costs of the prescription opioid crisis," the department said. "The plaintiffs seek to recover the costs associated with providing treatment and public safety measures relating to the opioid epidemic from those who allegedly used false, deceptive, or unfair marketing practices for prescription opioid drugs.
"The Justice Department will primarily argue that the federal government — through various federal health programs and law enforcement efforts — has borne substantial costs from the opioid epidemic and seeks reimbursement."
Sessions made the announcement at the Justice Department during a new conference attended by a handful of state attorneys general.
He noted that 2016 had seen the highest number of fatal drug overdoses by far in United States history, an estimated 64,000. And 2017 is expected to have recorded even more such deaths, Sessions said.
Most of those deadly ODs are related to opioids, either prescription painkillers, synthetic drugs such as fentanyl, or heroin, the illegal street drug.
The attorney general said a veteran federal prosecutor, Mary Daly, has been hired to lead the Justice Department's anti-opioid efforts.
Daly, who held prosecutor posts in Brooklyn, New York, and in Virginia, has expertise in fighting transnational drug trafficking groups.
Session said, "These are not our last steps."
"We will continue to attack the opioid crisis from every angle," he said. "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."