Justice Department announces new steps to combat opioid epidemic

Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsHillicon Valley: Trump cyber strategy lets US go on offense | AT&T urges court to let Time Warner merger stand | Conservatives want wife of DOJ official to testify | Facebook, nonprofits team up to fight fake news | DC camera hacker pleads guilty Vote Democrat in midterms to rein in Trump, preserve justice Sessions limits ability of judges to dismiss deportation cases MORE announced Wednesday that the Justice Department will award $12 million in grants to help law enforcement agencies combat the opioid crisis and create a new office in the Appalachian region to crack down on illicit drug trafficking.

Sessions is also ordering all U.S. attorneys' offices to designate an opioid coordinator to work with prosecutors and other federal, state, tribal and local law enforcement officials to coordinate opioid prosecutions.

"Today we are facing the worst drug crisis in American history, with one American dying of a drug overdose every nine minutes," Sessions said at a press conference.

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"We need to use every lawful tool we have — and we will. This department will continue to take whatever steps we deem appropriate and effective toward our goal of turning the tide."

The $12 million in grant funding will assistant law enforcement in combating illegal manufacturing and distribution of methamphetamine, heroin and prescription opioids, Sessions said. 

About $7 million of that funding will go directly to law enforcement agencies in states with high per capita levels of primary treatment admissions for heroin and other opioids.

That includes $1.4 million for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and $1.1 million for the New York State Police. 

Another $5 million will go to state agencies that have seized numerous precursor chemicals, finished methamphetamine, laboratories and laboratory dumps.

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) will also establish a new division on Jan. 1 to focus on illicit drug trafficking in Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia, the administration announced.

The division, to be based in Louisville, Ky., will have 90 special agents and 130 task force officers, Sessions said.

“This change will produce more effective investigations on heroin, fentanyl and prescription opioid trafficking, all of which have a significant impact on the region,” said Acting DEA Administrator Robert Patterson.

Earlier this month, the Justice Department announced steps that would make it easier to prosecute traffickers of potent synthetic opioids that have led to an uptick in overdose deaths. 

President Trump declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency in October. 

However, Democratic lawmakers and some advocates panned the measure, saying more funding is needed for any such declaration to be effective.