US attorney general backs calls for crackdown on social media fentanyl sales

The head of the US Justice Department said Wednesday he supported actions by Congress to force social media companies to crack down on the sale of deadly fentanyl on their platforms.

Attorney General Merrick Garland was pressured in a Senate hearing to say what his department was doing about the flood of the highly dangerous opioid into the country, which is largely behind the rise of overdose deaths to 106,000 last year.

He was asked his view about Congressional efforts to hold social media companies responsible for marketing of the drug on their sites, despite their legal protection from liability for user content.

Garland acknowledged that drug cartels are marketing fentanyl and other illegal drugs on social media as prescription pills, and that some 60 percent of those pills contain fatal doses.

The efforts to combat this "certainly have our support with respect to finding a better way to get the social media companies... to take these kinds of things off their platforms, to search for them, to not use algorithms that recommend them," Garland told the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

"I totally agree with that."

Garland did not comment directly on efforts to alter the landmark Section 230 legislation of 1996 that helped power the growth of the internet and social media by providing host and platforms immunity over any content posted by users that might involve illegal activity.

"I think Section 230 has become a suicide pact. We have basically said to these companies, you are absolved from liability, make money," Democratic Senator Dick Durbin told Garland.

"And deaths result from it. And we have a responsibility," said Durbin.

Republicans on the committee meanwhile blasted Garland for not getting the flow of fentanyl over the border from Mexico under control.

"This is a horrible epidemic that kills more people than car wrecks and gun violence combined. The question is, what are we going to do about it?" asked Republican Senator Lindsey Graham.

Garland said the US government is focused "with enormous urgency" on both stopping the flow of fentanyl precursors chemical out of China and the production labs in Mexico.

"There are diplomatic concerns, we need the assistance of Mexico," he told Graham.

Mexico City is "helping us, but they could do much more. There's no question about that," he said.