(TNS) -- U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was in Columbus on Wednesday to announce a new effort to crack down on doctors, pharmacists and others who are profiting by improperly prescribing and selling opioids.
The nation's top cop announced the creation of a data-analytics effort called the Opioid Fraud Abuse Detection Unit, which is aimed at tracking trends that might point to pill mills and other rogue prescribers. He also said he would dedicate 12 federal prosecutors -- including one in southern Ohio -- to go after them.
The message to professionals who are abusing their licenses, Sessions said: "We are coming after you."
He was speaking at the Columbus Police Academy to an audience of police, politicians and families that have been touched by the opioid epidemic. Sessions told them that 80 percent of opioid addictions start with prescription-drug abuse.
As the opioid epidemic rages across the country, it has particularly ravaged Ohio.
The Buckeye State had more than 4,100 overdose deaths in 2016, according to a Columbus Dispatch investigation that Sessions cited. Ohio has had the most overdose deaths in the United States.
"Ohio is at the center of this drug crisis that is gripping our entire nation. This crisis affects all of us, but it is especially taking its toll on this community," he said.
"We must create a culture that is hostile to drug abuse. We know this can work. It has worked in the past for drugs, but also for cigarettes and seatbelts. A campaign was mounted, it took time, and it was effective. We need to send such a clear message now."
Many are worried that the famously tough-on-crime Sessions will take an outdated approach to the opioid epidemic.
Steve Hawkins, president of the Coalition for Public Safety, a group that advocates sentencing reform with backing from conservative and liberal groups, said, "The opioid crisis will be best addressed by drug treatment and other intervention programs. A return to the war on drugs is not going to be the answer."
And speaking before Sessions, Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther appeared to challenge the attorney general directly.
"In the 1980s, we had a partisan, politicized approach to the crack-cocaine epidemic," he said, referring to the Reagan-era war on drugs. "We can't let that happen again."
Before the speech, Ohio Auditor Dave Yost said it's over-simplistic to say that more treatment is the only tool to fight the opioid crisis.
"The claim that we can't arrest our way out of this is passé and dated," said Yost, a Republican candidate for attorney general. "We can't treat our way out of it, either."
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine praised his former Senate colleague.
"I am very thankful that the attorney general is prioritizing violent offenders," said DeWine, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor.
Sessions' visit to the Columbus Police Academy cames just after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, chairman of the President's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, called on the president Monday to declare a national state of emergency to fight to opioid crisis. It's not clear, however, what such a designation would mean.
Sessions also is visiting as controversy swirls around him and the Trump administration. Trump last week gave a speech to New York police in which he "joked" about police brutality. Sessions appeared this week to mildly rebuke his boss.
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"Just as I am committed to defending law enforcement who use deadly force while lawfully engaged in their work, I will also hold any officer responsible for breaking the law," Sessions said in a statement reported by the New York Times.
Trump also has complained about Sessions recusing himself from a probe into the Republican's presidential campaign's involvement with Russia.
The People's Justice Project and others protested the attorney general's visit.
©2017 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.