CONCORD, N.H. — Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday ordered federal prosecutors in 10 areas that have been especially hard-hit by overdose deaths from fentanyl to bring drug charges against anyone suspected of dealing the synthetic opioid, regardless of quantity.
An additional prosecutor will also be sent to each of the designated areas in Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maine, California and Pennsylvania as well as in New Hampshire, Sessions said.
“Fentanyl is a killer drug,” Sessions said in an interview Thursday morning as he flew to New Hampshire to meet with state and local law enforcement officials about the fentanyl crisis. “Fentanyl is so powerful that the slightest error in how much you take can go from this extremely pleasurable feeling to death.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 42,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses in 2016, a figure driven by a dramatic surge in deaths from fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.
West Virginia had the highest number of drug overdoses, with 52 deaths per 100,000 residents, while New Hampshire and Ohio were the next-highest-ranking states, with 39 deaths per 100,000 residents.
“Having a prosecutor solely dedicated to working these fentanyl cases is going to be a huge, enormous benefit to us here,” said Brian Boyle, the Drug Enforcement Administration special agent in charge of the New England Field Division, who described the fentanyl problem as “scary.”
“The amount of fentanyl we’re seeing is affecting everybody, all walks of life, all communities,” Boyle said. “You’re seeing it in rural areas, urban areas, big cities, middle-of-nowhere areas in New England.”
Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, is often mixed into heroin or cocaine. It is 50 times more powerful than heroin, 100 times more powerful than morphine and can kill a user almost instantly.
Dealers also press fentanyl into counterfeit pills sold on the street. Most illicit fentanyl comes into the United States through the mail or express shipping systems or is brought across the southwest border, according to the Justice Department.
The DEA says that much of the fentanyl in New England is manufactured in Mexico using materials from China and then smuggled across the border.
Sessions’s fentanyl crackdown is the latest step he is taking to combat its use. The department has tripled fentanyl prosecutions across the country and brought the first cases charging Chinese nationals with selling large quantities of the drug to Americans. Sessions has also proposed a change to national drug policy by limiting the amount of opioids that companies can manufacture each year. He has created a team of federal agents and analysts to try to disrupt illicit opioid sales online, and started an opioid fraud and abuse detection unit to target opioid-related health-care fraud.
“We are facing the deadliest drug crisis in American history,” Sessions said. “We’ve never seen anything like it. . . . For Americans under the age of 50, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death.”
Sessions’s “synthetic opioid surge” is based on a similar effort made by the U.S. attorney’s office in Manatee County, Fla., an area south of Tampa with a population of about 320,000 where there were 1,287 opioid overdoses and 123 opioid-related deaths in 2016.
Last year, federal prosecutors brought every “readily provable” case they could involving synthetic opioids, regardless of the quantity of the drug involved. The county indicted 45 alleged synthetic opioid traffickers, and overdose deaths dropped by 22 percent from 2016 to 2017, Justice officials said. The county sheriff’s office went from responding to 11 overdoses a day to an average of one a day, they said.
Sessions wants to replicate the Florida fentanyl crackdown in states like New Hampshire, focusing on dealers, not users.
He met Thursday with local and state law enforcement officials from New Hampshire, who told him their state is overwhelmed by the soaring number of fentanyl overdoses.
“I am ordering our prosecutors in 10 districts with some of the highest overdose death rates — including this one — to systematically and relentlessly prosecute every synthetic opioid case,” Sessions said in a speech in Concord. “We are going to arrest, prosecute and convict fentanyl dealers and we are going to put them in jail.”
From 2013 to 2016, opioid-related deaths tripled in New Hampshire. Sessions said that he traveled to Manchester, N.H., last spring soon after becoming attorney general for a youth summit on opioid awareness.
“Fifty mothers stood before thousands of high school students holding large pictures of their child who had been lost to drug overdoses,” Sessions said. “It was extremely moving and it’s something I will never forget.”
In one case, Sessions said, Eve Tarmey, a 17-year-old senior from Rochester, N.H., died after her mother’s boyfriend gave her an injection of fentanyl and woke up to find her unconscious. A 1-year old from Brentwood, N.H., died after he got into his father’s fentanyl stash and ate some of it.
In April, New Hampshire U.S. Attorney Scott W. Murray charged 45 people in a fentanyl trafficking conspiracy. An organization led by two brothers, Sergio and Raulin Martinez, was accused of using a large network of dispatchers who took drug orders over the phone, along with distributors who were regularly supplied with 200-gram bags of fentanyl, according to court documents.
“When it comes to synthetic opioids, there is no such thing as a small case,” Sessions said. “Three milligrams of fentanyl can be fatal. That’s equivalent to a pinch of salt. It’s not even enough to cover up Lincoln’s face on a penny. Depending on the purity, you could fit more than 1,000 fatal doses of fentanyl in a teaspoon.”