Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Monday the federal government will use Pittsburgh-area expertise to step up its fight against opioid-related crimes online.
He announced a new Joint Criminal Opioid Darknet Enforcement team to disrupt online opioid sales at the federal court house Downtown while addressing local law enforcement about the epidemic and related violent crime.
JCODE's goal will be to shut down online marketplaces, and in turn reduce opioid addiction and overdoses. The team will more than double the FBI's investment in fighting online opioid trafficking, Sessions said.
"I believe this new resource will fulfill a need that so far has not been met," he said, "and I am convinced this new investment will pay dividends for the people of Pennsylvania."
An estimated 626 people died in Allegheny County last year from opioid overdoses, according to state data.
Sessions said the FBI will dedicate dozens more staffers so they can focus on the one issue. Pittsburgh will play a role in that, he said, because its existing FBI team is one of the nation's most sophisticated in targeting online drug dealers.
Outside the court house, several dozen protestors voiced their disapproval of the Trump administration's policies.
David Scott Brozovich stood with the marijuana reform group Pittsburgh NORML. Sessions has called for stricter punishments for drug offenses, including mandatory minimum sentencing in marijuana possession cases.
"Cannabis is not a gateway drug to opioids," Brozovich said. "If anything, cannabis is a way to get relief from pain and other ailments without having to turn to opioids.”
Last summer, the Justice Department seized the largest darknet marketplace in history, Alpha Bay, which Sessions said hosted more than 220,000 drug listings and was responsible for "countless synthetic opioid overdoses."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.