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Synthetic Opioid Surge: AG Jeff Sessions announces operation to reduce fentanyl overdose deaths

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new initiative to combat the current fentanyl crisis. (Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images)

The U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced his latest initiative aimed at reducing overdose deaths of the drug fentanyl during a press conference at the U.S. District Court in Concord, Maine, Thursday.

"Today, we are facing the most deadly crisis in America's history," Sessions said during the press conference. "We've never seen anything like it."

He said the operation, dubbed Synthetic Opioid Surge, or S.O.S., will focus on reducing the supply of drugs in the specific districts that have some of the highest overdose rates of fentanyl in the country.

More than 42,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2016, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"It is incredible but true that for Americans under the age of 50, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death," Sessions said, adding that preliminary CDC data for 2017 showed that the death toll caused by overdoses continued to rise but at a much slower pace.

What's the plan?

Each of the districts will have prosecutors solely dedicated to working fentanyl cases, Sessions explained.

"We are going to arrest, prosecute, and convict fentanyl dealers and we are going to put them in jail," Sessions said during the press conference, according to a news release. "When it comes to synthetic opioids, there is no such thing as a small case."

The districts are the Eastern District of California; Eastern District of Kentucky; District of Maine; District of New Hampshire; Northern District of Ohio; Southern District of Ohio; Western District of Pennsylvania;  Eastern District of Tennessee; Northern District of West Virginia; and the Southern District of West Virginia, KDKA-TV reported.

Will drug users be targeted?

"I want to be clear about this: we are not focusing on users but those supplying them with deadly drugs," Sessions said.

What is fentanyl, anyway?

Fentanyl is a potent synthetic opioid. It is 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin and 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

It's used as an anesthetic and sometimes prescribed by doctors to treat chronic pain, most commonly in cancer patients.

Fentanyl is commonly sold illegally and can come in various forms, but in its purest form, it is a white powder or in grains similar to the size of salt. As little as two milligrams can be deadly, according to the DEA.

"Depending on the purity, you could fit more than 1,000 fatal doses of fentanyl in a teaspoon," Sessions explained.

Some of the drug's street names include Apache, China Girl, China Town, Dance Fever, and Friend.

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