WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department took steps on Tuesday to crack down on a major opioid drug trafficking ring in a move that included the filing of federal and state charges against about 100 defendants and the seizure of 450 grams of fentanyl.
The takedown of what was referred to as the Peterson Drug Trafficking Organization was unveiled by Mike Stuart, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, a state that has been hammered by the opioid epidemic.
“Today’s actions have removed from our streets enough fentanyl to kill more than 250,000 people and massive amounts of other drugs that would have wreaked havoc and misery on our good citizens,” Stuart said in a statement.
The Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions has sought to allocate additional resources to help combat the opioid epidemic.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 42,000 people died from opioid overdoses in 2016, the last year with publicly available data.
The Justice Department has taken steps such as creating an opioid task force and assigning prosecutors to opioid hot spots to focus on pursuing more cases.
It also recently sought permission from a federal court to participate in settlement negotiations aimed at resolving lawsuits by state and local governments against opioid manufacturers and distributors.
Tuesday’s action involved law enforcement from federal, state and local agencies who targeted alleged drug traffickers in Huntington, West Virginia, which Stuart described as “ground zero” for the opioid crisis in the United States.
Charges are also being filed against defendants in Detroit, Michigan, the supply hub for the trafficking group.
Among those arrested include Willie Peterson, the alleged leader of the drug ring, and Peterson’s brother Manget.
The Peterson drug trafficking ring at the center of the arrests and seizures has been in the Huntington area for 15 years and sells and distributes large quantities of heroin, fentanyl and cocaine, Stuart said.
“This is not a takedown of corner dealers… and addicts,” Stuart told reporters ahead of a scheduled press conference on Tuesday. “It is a potential game-changer for Huntington.”
Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Dan Grebler