WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Tuesday creation of a new task force focused specifically on targeting opioid manufacturers and distributors, and holding them accountable for unlawful practices.

The Justice Department also filed a statement of interest in a case involving hundreds of lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and distributors. Sessions said the Justice Department will argue that the federal government has borne substantial costs from the opioid epidemic and it seeks reimbursement. The case includes numerous cities, municipalities and medical institutions.

“Opioid abuse is driving the deadliest drug crisis in American history,” Sessions said at a news conference with several U.S. attorneys. “It has strained our public health and law enforcement resources and bankrupted countless families across this country.

Sessions’ announcement is part of a flurry of activity this week at the White House, on Capitol Hill, in a U.S. courthouse and elsewhere that may mark the beginning of an intensified federal effort to address the uncontrolled drug epidemic sweeping the country.

States and cities have suffered the brunt of the cost and carnage of the drug crisis, which killed more than 64,000 people in 2016 and is straining local emergency and health services. About two-thirds of the overdose deaths were caused by opioids, in particular illicit fentanyl.

Drug overdoses killed a record 418 people in Maine last year.

This week, the White House is holding a summit on the drug crisis, hearings on eight House bills are beginning on Capitol Hill and the Secretary of Health and Human Services has embraced the expansion of medically assisted drug treatment – in contrast to his predecessor.

In Ohio, a federal judge overseeing hundreds of lawsuits against drug companies may rule by Monday on whether the Drug Enforcement Administration must give plaintiffs and defendants years of data on prescription opioid painkillers that were poured into communities across the country. Overprescribing by doctors and that uncontrolled supply of pills are widely blamed for the start of the epidemic.

President Trump declared the opioid epidemic a “health emergency” in October, but cities overwhelmed by the crisis have complained that there has been little action or money from Washington in the months since.

In Maine, Attorney General Janet Mills in June joined a multistate investigation into what role manufacturers played in creating the opioids crisis.

And the city of Portland in September voted to join a nationwide lawsuit against opioid manufacturers.


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