CONCORD, N.H. — Federal prosecutors in eight states with high drug overdose death rates will pursue even seemingly small synthetic opioid cases under a program announced Thursday by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Sessions announced Operation Synthetic Opioid Surge in New Hampshire, which Republican President Donald Trump has called a "drug-infested den." The program is modeled after a successful effort in Manatee County, Florida, and will involve prosecutors each choosing one county in which to pursue every "readily provable" case involving the sale of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, regardless of the quantity involved.
"We can weaken these networks, reduce fentanyl availability and we can save lives," Sessions said. "When it comes to synthetic opioids there really is no such thing as a small case. Three milligrams of fentanyl can be fatal. That's the equivalent of one pinch of salt."
Besides New Hampshire, the program will provide a new assistant U.S. attorney to districts in California, Kentucky, Maine, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and West Virginia.
Sessions said officials hope to replicate an effort in Manatee County, Florida, where the number of overdose deaths in the last six months of 2017 was 74 percent lower than the same period in 2016.
New Hampshire had the second highest rate of opioid-related overdose deaths in the country in 2016. Deaths due to synthetic opioids in particular increased more than tenfold from 2013 to 2016.
Given its proximity to the drug supply chain, New Hampshire is unlikely to see the same kind of success as the Florida county, Sessions said. But he was confident the new program would help.
"I want to be clear about this: We're not focusing on users but on those who are supplying them with deadly drugs," he told prosecutors and law enforcement officers at a federal courthouse. "We want to go up the chain to attack and dismantle the most serious drug dealing."
Outside the courthouse, protesters called on Sessions to instead support quality, affordable health care to fight the drug crisis. Ryan Fowler, a recovery support worker from Exeter, called the new program a waste of money. He said he used and sold drugs for about a decade before getting treatment through the state's expanded Medicaid program. Fowler said he was offended that Sessions proposed more punitive measures while the Trump administration attacks the Affordable Care Act.
The Justice Department said recently it will no longer defend key parts of the Affordable Care Act, including widely-supported provisions that guarantee access to health insurance for people with medical problems and limit what insurers can charge older, sicker adults.
"This is just a means to increase massive incarceration," Fowler said.