The US Drug Enforcement Agency is opening its first new field division in nearly 20 years, officials said Wednesday (Nov. 29). The office, which will be based in Louisville, Kentucky, will cover some of the country’s most ravaged areas by prescription-opioid abuse.
While president Donald Trump often rails against illegal drugs smuggled over the border, prescription drugs remain a big driver of the opioid epidemic. His administration has been under growing pressure to do something about it as news investigations have detailed how a flood of illegally-sold pills washed over rural communities in recent years. These opioids were distributed by drug companies and pharmacists, not drug dealers.
On Wednesday, attorney general Jeff Sessions again condemned international drug smugglers for fueling Americans’ drug addition during a press conference to announce a series of measures to combat the opioid crisis. But he also recognized the role played by healthcare workers in the country. Many of those charged by his office with opioid offenses during a summer sting, he said, “unfortunately, were professionals, doctors, pharmacists, and others.”
In addition to creating the new DEA division, Sessions said his office is setting aside $7 million to fund an anti-heroin task force, and that every US attorney would have a designated person to coordinate opioid cases. Meanwhile, Trump appointed adviser Kellyanne Conway to oversee the White House’s campaign to end the epidemic.
The new division will oversee Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia, three states that have struggled with trafficked prescription drugs for years. Their drug-prescribing rates have consistently been among the highest in the country over the past few years.
“It’s an insidious epidemic created in large part by the overprescribing of potent opioids that has resulted in the new generation of opioid abusers,” DEA acting administrator Robert Patterson said during the conference.
Now users hooked on pills are turning to illegal versions of those opioids, further complicating the DEA’s task of reverting the crisis. The overdose death rate by synthetic opioids, including illicitly-made fentanyl, shot up by 90% in West Virginia in 2015 from 2014; it rose by 76% in Tennessee, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.