Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Monday that dozens of federal agents and analysts will form a team to disrupt illicit opioid sales online, an emerging front in the government's campaign to thwart a deadly epidemic.
"Criminals think that they are safe online because they're anonymous, but they are in for a rude awakening," Sessions said to law enforcement officials gathered in Pittsburgh's federal courthouse. "We have already infiltrated their networks, and we are determined to bring them to justice."
Sessions said the new team, dubbed Joint Criminal Opioid Darknet Enforcement (J-CODE), will double the FBI's effort in fighting online opioid trafficking. A record 64,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2016, Sessions said.
"It's unbelievable," Sessions said. "That's more than the population of Lancaster, Pa., dead in one year. And in 2017, it appears that the death toll was even higher."
The Washington Post reported Monday that mobile technology is revolutionizing illicit drug markets and changing how the drug trade operates. Open-air drug markets still flourish in many U.S. cities. But in others, instead of turning to drug dealers controlling city corners and defending their turf with violence, drug buyers are using encrypted communications and messaging apps on their phones.
A search for the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl on the site EC21, for example, won't show any results. But if someone spells it "fentanylllll," a thumbnail photo of white powder pops up with a phone number and email address, possibly from a company in China.
"You don't have to go to a street corner to buy drugs," Sessions said. "With a few clicks of a button, you can go online and have them shipped right to your door."
The formation of J-CODE marks the latest effort to combat the growing marketplace for drugs on the Internet. In July, the Justice Department shut down AlphaBay, an illicit marketplace for drugs, firearms and fake documents on the dark Web. At the time, Sessions called it the "largest dark Web takedown in world history."
In August, the Justice Department assigned a dozen prosecutors to areas where opioid addiction is prevalent and created a new data analytics program, the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit, to focus on investigating opioid-related health-care fraud. In November, Sessions ordered all 94 U.S. attorney's offices to designate an opioid coordinator to supervise anti-opioid strategy. He also announced that anyone who illegally possesses, imports, distributes or manufactures fentanyl can face criminal prosecution.
The anti-opioids team will comprise agents from the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and Justice Department task forces.
"It will help us make more arrests of those selling these deadly substances online as well as shut down the marketplaces that these drug dealers use — and ultimately help us reduce addiction and overdoses in this community and across the nation," Sessions told the officials in Pittsburgh where he said the violent crime rate was double the national average in 2016.
"These are not numbers," Sessions said. "These are moms, dads, daughters, spouses, friends and neighbors. . . . They include a man and a woman who overdosed and died at home. Their helpless five-month old daughter was home alone with them. She starved to death in her bassinet over the course of three days."
Sessions did not take any questions at the event. He is scheduled to speak about opioids and violent crime again on Tuesday during an appearance in Louisville
Nick Miroff contributed to this report.