Feb. 27 (UPI) -- The Justice Department has formed a new task force to target drug manufacturers and distributors that have contributed to the nation's opioid crisis, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Tuesday, the third such team he has created to tackle the epidemic.
Speaking in Washington, D.C., the nation's top law enforcement official said the Prescription Interdiction & Litigation Task Force, or PIL, would examine possible legislative and regulatory changes in existing laws in order to halt the unlawful spread of opioids.
"We will use criminal penalties. We will use civil penalties. We will use whatever tools we have to hold people accountable for breaking our laws," Sessions said.
The task force is part of the Trump administration's effort to crack down on opioid abuse, which Sessions said killed an estimated 64,000 Americans in 2016, and likely killed more in 2017. In October, President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a national public health emergency and increased funding to a number of federal agencies tasked with fighting the "human tragedy."
PIL is the third opioid-related team Sessions has created over the past several months, including one he started less than a month ago to fight opioid trafficking on the Internet. The Joint Criminal Opioid Darknet Enforcement team will have the the power to shut down online marketplaces that traffickers use.
In July, one of the largest "darknet" Internet sites used to sell illegal drugs and contraband was shut down. AlphaBay housed more than 250,000 listings for illegal narcotics via cryptocurrencies, such as bitcoin, that help users remain anonymous. The founder of the site was arrested in Thailand.
In August, Sessions created the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection unit, which tasked 12 federal prosecutors with tackling opioid-related healthcare fraud.
Sessions said Tuesday that by November, these prosecutors had begun issuing indictments. One such indictment charged a Las Vegas doctor with 29 counts of unlawful distribution of fentanyl and healthcare fraud. The U.S. Attorney's Office accused Dr. Steven Holper of prescribing a form of fentanyl called Subsys to a patient without legitimate legal purpose.
In addition to creating PIL on Tuesday, Sessions announced the appointment of Mary Daly, a former U.S. attorney, as director of Opioid Enforcement and Prevention Efforts. He also said the Justice Department is expected to file a statement of interest in a lawsuit against a number of opioid manufacturers and distributors for allegedly using false, deceptive and unfair marketing of opioid drugs.
"The federal government has borne substantial costs as a result of the opioid crisis. The Medicare prescription drug program, for example, paid more than $4 billion for opioids in 2016," Sessions said.
"The hard-working taxpayers of this country deserve to be compensated by those whose illegal activity contributed to those costs. And we will go to court to ensure that the American people receive the compensation they deserve."