The Trump administration has vowed to hit opioid manufacturers and distributors with criminal penalties if they break the law, as it seeks to target the companies behind the addiction epidemic ravaging the US.
Jeff Sessions, attorney-general, warned companies in the opioid business on Tuesday as the Department of Justice announced it would insert itself into an existing legal battle against the drug industry by filing a government brief.
Announcing the creation of a prescription litigation task force, Mr Sessions said: “We will use criminal penalties. We will use civil penalties. We will use whatever tools we have to hold people accountable for breaking our laws.”
The US is gripped by a drug addiction crisis that has led to soaring numbers of overdose deaths. President Donald Trump declared it a public health emergency last year.
Policymakers have struggled to cope with the epidemic, with local authorities scrambling to set up treatment centres and expand morgue capacity.
In a signal of the administration’s intent, Mr Sessions said the justice department was filing a “statement of interest” in a lawsuit against a number of opioid manufacturers and distributors “for allegedly using false, deceptive, and unfair marketing of opioid drugs”.
According to US government figures, the states with the highest rates of overdose deaths last year were West Virginia, with 52 deaths per 100,000 people, Ohio, with 39.1 deaths, and New Hampshire, with 39 deaths.
Last July, the justice department brought charges against more than 120 people, including a number of doctors, for alleged crimes related to prescribing or distributing opioids and other drugs.
The following week, it seized AlphaBay, a website that it said hosted more than 100 sellers of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid significantly more powerful than heroin and morphine.
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