Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new tool to fight America's ongoing opioid addiction epidemic, one that specifically targets pharmaceutical companies and prescription pill distributors. After more than a year spent almost exclusively on narcotics-focused fear mongering instead of evidence-backed action, it appears that Sessions' Department of Justice will finally descend on white collar drug dealers — but it may be too little, too late.
Sessions announced the newly-formed Prescription Interdiction & Litigation (PIL) Task Force at a press conference Tuesday afternoon in Washington D.C., telling reporters and U.S. Attorneys alike that the DOJ will do everything in its power to corral the root cause of the country's opioid epidemic, from multinational pharmaceutical companies and over-distributing pill mills to individual physicians fueling the deadly drug crisis.
"We will use criminal penalties. We will use civil penalties. We will use whatever laws and tools we have to hold people accountable if they break our laws," Sessions said at the news conference announcing the PIL Task Force.
In addition to the DOJ's own investigations, charges, and lawsuits, Sessions said that the task force will also assist local and state-level lawsuits seeking financial compensation from pharmaceutical companies for their role in the epidemic. Across the country, lawsuits have been filed claiming hundreds of millions of dollars in lost worker productivity, health care costs, and public funding lost to opioid addiction and overdose. At Sessions' direction, the federal government will now file statements of interest in hundreds of those lawsuits, as well as file their own suits against the same pharmaceutical producers.
"The federal government has borne substantial costs from the opioid crisis, and it must be compensated by any party whose illegal activity contributed to those costs," the DOJ's PIL Task Force press release states.
But while the PIL Task Force's goals appear to be a progressive move away from Sessions' previous stance on opioid enforcement — namely arresting low-level immigrant drug dealers, falsely connecting cannabis to heroin, and targeting addicts — the new efforts may be too late to influence any significant changes. For example, a report from Vox details how America's opioid problem has all but graduated from prescription pills to an increased prevalence of heroin and illegally imported synthetic opioids like fentanyl, with both of those drugs causing more overdoses in 2016 and 2017 than prescription pills themselves.
Even if Sessions and his newly created task force are successful in stemming the tide of over-prescribed opioids, it will need to be paired with significant changes to and funding increases in addiction treatment assistance, prison reform, and evidence-based health practices. Arresting pharmaceutical bigwigs won't fix a problem that's already deeply embedded in the fabric of society.
White House senior advisor and recently-appointed drug combatant Kellyanne Conway was also at the PIL Task Force announcement, where she confirmed rumors that President Trump has been toying with the idea of proposing draconian punishments for drug dealers. But few are convinced that implementing the death penalty for convicted fentanyl traffickers would help alleviate the drug crisis. If anything, Conway's presence confirmed that the status quo of the Trump administration hasn't changed much.
It is still unclear as to what exactly will come of the PIL Task Force and its newly-created directives, but with nearly 200 Americans dying every day from opioid overdoses, the problem does not appear to be disappearing anytime soon.
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