Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Tuesday that over the next 45 days, a "surge" of Drug Enforcement Administration agents and investigators will focus on pharmacies and prescribers who are dispensing unusual or disproportionate amounts of opioid drugs.
To intensify the fight against what is called "prescription drug diversion," the DEA will examine data from approximately 80 million reports it collects every year from prescription drug manufacturers and distributors, Sessions said.
The data includes distribution and inventory figures, and analysts will look for patterns and statistical outliers that can be developed into targeting packages, or information used to identify those suspected of breaking the law, and sent to each of the DEA's 22 field divisions, a Justice Department official said.
"That will help us make more arrests, secure more convictions and ultimately help us reduce the number of prescription drugs available for Americans to get addicted to or overdose from," Sessions said in a speech to law enforcement officials in Louisville.
The call for more firepower comes as states and communities grapple with the worst health crisis in modern U.S. history. Prescription drug overdoses have claimed nearly 200,000 lives since 2000, and the death toll continues to rise each year. In October, President Trump declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency.
A 2016 investigation by The Washington Post found that numerous drug companies and pharmacies have failed to report millions of suspicious orders of narcotics, flooding small towns and large cities with massive amounts of pain pills such as Vicodin and oxycodone. Rogue doctors and pain-pill mills helped fuel the epidemic.
A joint investigation by The Post and "60 Minutes" in October revealed how Congress and the Obama White House approved a law that makes it more difficult for the DEA to bring cases against some of the worst offenders of the nation's Controlled Substances Act. The legislation was backed by some of the biggest names in the pharmaceutical industry.
DEA agents and investigators in the field said the law has made it harder for them to shut down or suspend companies that are failing to comply with the act. Sessions and 44 state attorneys general have called for changes to the law, the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act.
The amount of prescription narcotics that have wound up with drug dealers and users during the past decade has been staggering. This week, the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is investigating the opioid industry, said it discovered that two drug distribution companies had shipped more than 20 million pain pills to two pharmacies four blocks apart in Williamson, W.Va., a town with a population of 2,900.
"These numbers are outrageous, and we will get to the bottom of how this destruction was able to be unleashed across West Virginia," the chairman of the committee, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), and the ranking Democrat, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.), said in a joint statement.
Williamson and other communities are fighting back. To date, nearly 270 towns, cities and counties have filed lawsuits against drug distributors, manufacturers and chain drugstores, alleging that they failed to report suspicious orders and phony prescriptions for the drugs. A dozen states have also filed suits, and another group of states has banded together to investigate the industry. The industry has countered that corrupt doctors and pain-pill mills are mostly to blame for the epidemic and that the DEA has not done enough to combat the epidemic.
Sessions has made several speeches recently about the Justice Department's effort to combat the nation's opioid epidemic. On Monday, he traveled to Pittsburgh to announce that dozens of federal agents and analysts will form a team to disrupt illicit opioid sales online.