DOJ Announces New Tools To Fight The Opioid Epidemic And Opioid-Related Crimes

Posted On Thursday, December 21, 2017
By: John A. Schwab

What Happened?

Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently announced additional efforts in DOJ’s fight against the opioid crisis.  Most notably, DOJ created a director-level position and is requiring all U.S. Attorney’s Offices to designate a coordinator to handle opioid-related investigations and prosecutions.

The Rundown

Since taking the helm in February 2017, General Sessions and his Department focused on various initiatives related to the opioid crisis.   On Wednesday, December 20, the Attorney General announced a new senior-level position at DOJ titled Director of Opioid Enforcement and Prevention Efforts.  The Director will assist DOJ and its leadership with developing and implementing opioid-related initiatives, policies, and programs, and coordinating these efforts with law enforcement.

At the end of November, the Attorney General announced three new tools to combat the opioid epidemic and opioid-related crimes.  First is over $12 million in grants to state and local law enforcement agencies to get illegal drugs like heroin methamphetamines, cocaine, and other illicit drugs off the streets.  Second, the DEA will open a new field office in Louisville, Kentucky – the first new DEA office in almost 20 years.  The new office will cover West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee and have approximately 90 special agents and 130 task force officers.  Third, each U.S. Attorney’s Office – all 94 of them – will designate an opioid coordinator to “serve as a kind of quarterback of our anti-opioid efforts in their community.”  In his memo to the U.S. Attorneys, the Attorney General stated that the opioid coordinator will facilitate the “intake of cases involving prescription opioids, heroin, and fentanyl” and convene “a task force of federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement to identify opioid cases for federal prosecution, facilitate interdiction efforts, and tailor [the] district’s response to the needs of the community it serves.”

In August, General Sessions announced the creation of the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit chartered to target 12 federal districts hardest hit by the opioid epidemic.  The 12 districts on which the opioid unit is focused include the Western District of Pennsylvania, Southern District of West Virginia, and Southern District of Ohio.  The unit uses data analytics to identify and investigate physicians and medical providers who are overprescribing opioids as well as pharmacists failing to properly distribute them.  

Prescriptions – like those for opioids – are governed by 21 C.F.R. § 1306.04(a), which requires that they be given only for “a legitimate medical purpose by an individual practitioner acting in the usual course of his professional practice.”  Doctors disregarding this regulation have led federal agents and prosecutors to increasingly focus on alleged overprescribing, particularly those who exhibit “red flags” like cash only medical practices, lack of physical exams, prescribing without using opioid monitoring databases, prescribing dangerous combinations of drugs, prescribing to known addicts, and directing patients to use pharmacies known for lax dispensing practices.

For the Record

“With one American dying of a drug overdose every nine minutes, we need all hands on deck,” Attorney General Sessions said. “That’s why President Trump has made ending the drug epidemic a top priority.  This Department of Justice embraces that goal, and we have taken a number of steps this year to do our part.  We have indicted hundreds of defendants for drug related healthcare fraud, sent more prosecutors to where they’re needed most, and we’ve taken on the gangs and cartels.  Today we take the next step: creating a senior level official position at the Department to focus entirely on this issue. This Department will continue to follow the President’s lead, and I am confident that we can and will turn the tide of the drug crisis.”