Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the creation of the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit on Tuesday, a new Department of Justice pilot program that will crunch data on opioid prescriptions in an effort to detect abuse.
In a speech to law enforcement officers and families in Columbus, Ohio, the attorney general called the current epidemic "the worst drug crisis in our history."
"[S]ome of the government officials in this country have sent mixed messages about the harmfulness of drugs. We must not capitulate intellectually or morally to drug use. We must create a culture that is hostile to drug abuse," Sessions said.
Sessions added that this type of anti-drug message "has worked in the past" for other dangerous situations.
"We know this can work. It has worked in the past for drugs, but also for cigarettes and seat belts. A campaign was mounted, it took time, and it was effective. We need to send such a clear message now," he explained.
The new pilot program will fund 12 new assistant U.S. attorneys for a three-year term to "focus solely on investigating and prosecuting healthcare fraud related to prescription opioids," the Justice Department said.
The new Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit will be a data analytics program that will look for certain signs that opioid prescriptions are being abused, such as doctors who write prescriptions "at a rate that far exceeds their peers."
The 12 new prosecutors will be based in U.S. attorney's offices in the following districts:
- Middle District of Florida
- Eastern District of Michigan
- Northern District of Alabama
- Eastern District of Tennessee
- District of Nevada
- Eastern District of Kentucky
- District of Maryland
- Western District of Pennsylvania
- Southern District of Ohio
- Eastern District of California
- Middle District of North Carolina
- Southern District of West Virginia
Notably missing from the list are any New England-area districts, where the problem is acute and where President Trump has said help is needed.
According to federal data, a record 52,000 Americans died of overdoses in 2015.
Sessions has made it a priority to tackle drugs in his half-year stint as leader of the Justice Department, and has called for more prosecutions and stricter enforcement.
In May, Sessions directed federal prosecutors to bring the harshest possible charges against crime suspects. Critics denounced the move as a return to failed past policies from the so-called "War on Drugs" that would lead to a bump in the prison population.