Dozens of people have been charged with distributing heroin and fentanyl in the takedown of a drug distribution network operating in West Virginia and Michigan, Justice Department officials said Tuesday.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that nearly 100 people have been targeted for arrest in the operation that dismantled the multistate "Peterson Drug Trafficking Organization." Law enforcement officials have seized enough fentanyl in the ongoing takedown to kill more than 250,000 people, he said.
"Our great country has never seen drug deaths like we're seeing today," Sessions said. "Under President Trump's strong leadership, the Department of Justice has taken historic new actions to put drug traffickers in jail and keep dangerous drugs out of the wrong hands."
Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is sometimes mixed into cocaine or heroin. Justice officials say that most illicit fentanyls come into the United States through the mail or express shipping systems or are imported across the southwest border.
Every day, 55 Americans die from overdoses of synthetic opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The overdose death rate from synthetic opioids approximately doubled between 2015 and 2016, when more than 20,000 people died of overdose deaths, a Justice official said.
Mike Stuart, the U.S. attorney for the southern district of West Virginia, said that his state has been particularly wracked by the opioid epidemic, made worse by drug traffickers who are bringing drugs into the state from Detroit.
"The highest per capita overdose rate and the highest per capita death rate in the country for opiates is right here in the southern district of West Virginia," Stuart said on a phone call to reporters. "To a certain degree, Huntington has become ground zero, the epicenter of the opioid crisis."
Stuart said heroin and fentanyl are "hammering" the West Virginia population, which is already facing a severe economic crisis and loss of jobs.
"There's barely a family in West Virginia that has not been affected," Stuart said. Last year, the murder rate in Huntington increased 76 percent from 2016, Stuart said. The aggravated assault rate increased 28 percent and the number of rapes rose 24 percent, he said.
More than 200 federal, state and local law enforcement officials, including members of the West Virginia National Guard, were involved in the operation, which began at 6 a.m. Tuesday.
Justice officials said the multistate operation is the latest example of the tough stance that the Justice Department has taken under Sessions in combating the opioid crisis.
In August, Sessions 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 any fentanyl-related substance can be criminally prosecuted.
In January, Sessions created the Joint Criminal Opioid Darknet Enforcement team to double the FBI's effort in combating online opioid trafficking, which has become an emerging front in fighting the deadly epidemic. Sessions also launched a task force in February to target drug manufacturers and distributors for their roles in the opioid epidemic, and filed a statement of interest in hundreds of lawsuits against drug companies brought by cities, counties and medical institutions seeking reimbursement for the cost of the drug crisis.