In response to the nation’s high rates of opioid abuse and opioid related deaths, the federal Justice Department launched a massive initiative last year. The primary focus of the action is aimed at cracking down specifically on doctors who illegally prescribe opioids.

Since its launch in 2018, the Justice Department initiative has lead to a little under 100 charges. Currently, most of these are still in the early stages of the prosecution process.

And while those cases remain pending, authorities continue the crack down. Now, federal officials just announced new charges against 13 people in the Appalachia region—11 of whom are doctors.

Targeting Medical Professionals

As reported by the AP and CNN Wire, the spate of opioid related arrests is largely the result of a shift in focus by law enforcement. Specifically, a new strategy that focuses on doctors and other medical professionals.

According to reports, law enforcement began compiling and analyzing detailed stats on opioid prescriptions. Eventually, analysts started focusing in on a few key metrics that were often linked to criminal opioid activity.

Specifically, authorities started paying close attention to:

  • rate of patient deaths linked to specific doctors;
  • how far people travel to get prescriptions written and filled;
  • a comparative analysis of how much doctors are prescribing opioids;
  • the dosages being prescribed by different doctors.

By using these statistical analyses, officials began flagging anything that looked abnormal or potentially troubling. From there, agents on the ground reportedly begin monitoring flagged medical providers.

“We’ll do surveillance or send a confidential source in, and we’re really looking at the type of prescriptions doctors are writing and then asking medical experts, are these within the norms?” said a Drug Enforcement Agency official in West Virginia. “It’s more of a chess game in a way than a traditional narcotics investigation. We’re a cross between investigating white collar crime and narcotics.”

Opioid Related Arrests

According to the AP and CNN, the new crackdown has so far led to formal charges being filed against 87 medical professionals.

Most recently, 13 people were charged after a large bust in the Appalachian region. Specifically, authorities made arrests in West Virginia, Ohio, and Tennessee.

The people arrested in this most recent bust are suspected of being involved in the prescription of more than 17 million opioid pills. In different cases, medical professionals were caught giving out too many prescriptions or prescribing dosages that were unusually high.

Similarly, some reports indicate that medical professionals were taking cash payments for illegal prescriptions, and in some cases, were trading opioids for sexual favors.

The Applachian bust has already drawn significant attention, as this region suffers from the highest rates of opioid abuse and death. In particular, West Viriginia has the highest rates in the nation.

Currently, the national average for opioid deaths is 14.6 per every 100,000 people. But in West Virginia, it’s as high as 49.6 deaths per 100,000 people—roughly tripling the national average.

What About Addicts?

Interestingly, these type of sweeping busts can often become dangerous to people who have become addicted to opioids. No longer able to get opioids, many fall into sudden withdrawals.

As a result, officials say they typically try to alert local hospitals that there could be an influx of people coming in with symptoms

Interestingly, multiple studies have pointed to medical cannabis as a possible treatment for opioid addiction. In particular, many of these studies suggest that cannabis can help safely wean people off of opioid addictions.

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