WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced another crackdown on Wednesday on opioids, targeting doctors and drug dealers alike in cases that spanned physicians’ offices in Ohio, drugmakers in China and online black markets.
“Today’s announcements are a warning to every trafficker, every crooked doctor or pharmacist, and every drug company, every chairman and foreign national and company that puts greed before the lives and health of the American people,” Mr. Sessions said at a news conference in Cleveland, a city at the heart of a national opioid epidemic that killed a record 72,000 Americans last year.
His announcement came a week after President Trump asked Mr. Sessions during a cabinet meeting at the White House to sue companies that supplied opioids and to investigate opioid trafficking from China and Mexico, calling the flood of drugs from those countries “almost a form of warfare.” The president, who campaigned on targeting the opioid crisis, has also set a goal to reduce opioid prescriptions by one-third in three years.
Among the three cases Mr. Sessions announced Wednesday was a complaint accusing two doctors of illegally prescribing opioids. One of the doctors was also accused of Medicare fraud and of accepting $175,000 in kickbacks from a drug manufacturer. Prosecutors want to deny both doctors the authority to prescribe drugs.
Mr. Sessions also said that an Ohio couple was charged with selling fentanyl, an opioid far more powerful than heroin, and other drugs on the so-called dark web, secretive online markets known for sales of drugs, guns and other illicit goods.
The couple were the most prolific fentanyl vendors in the United States on the dark web when they were arrested in April, Mr. Sessions said. The couple sold drugs on several markets including AlphaBay, a notorious dark-web market that the Justice Department seized last year.
The government also indicted leaders of the Zheng drug trafficking organization, which is accused of manufacturing more than 250 types of synthetic opioids and other drugs in China, then distributing them in the United States and other countries.
The Zheng organization is also accused of making counterfeit Adderall. A man charged with serving as the American reshipper for the organization was caught trying to flee the country and has pleaded guilty.
While prosecutions do not necessarily reduce the number of Americans addicted to opioids, “these cases are important because they push more people to seek treatment,” said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, a co-director of opioid policy research at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University.
Although the government estimates that 2.5 million Americans are addicted to opioids, Dr. Kolodny said he believes the number is probably between five million and 10 million. More than 200,000 people in the United States have died from overdoses of prescription opioids over the past two decades, and a multitude of plaintiffs are suing pharmaceutical companies and other distributors.
The Justice Department has written a statement supporting the plaintiffs in that litigation, which has consolidated more than 400 complaints.
“If the Justice Department really means business, we’ll see criminal charges brought against executives who run the pharmaceuticals companies that have flooded the market with opioids, not just small-time doctors who overprescribe,” Dr. Kolodny said.
For months, the department has sought ways to increase other opioid-related prosecutions.
In April, the Drug Enforcement Administration and 48 state attorneys general agreed to coordinate efforts to fight opioid abuse and to share prescription drug information to aid in investigations. Mr. Sessions also said that month that he had directed every United States attorney’s office to designate an opioid coordinator and announced that the department had charged over 50 doctors with opioid-related crimes and indicted more than 6,500 defendants in opioid-related investigations.
In July, Mr. Sessions announced that he would have prosecutors in districts with the highest overdose death rates prosecute every synthetic opioid case, no matter the size.
The department also started a task force to prosecute people throughout the opioid supply chain, including manufacturers, distributors, doctors, pharmacies and street gangs. The complaint against the Ohio doctors stemmed from that task force.