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Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks at the Opiate Abuse Conference
Montpelier, Vt. ~ Friday, September 10, 2010

Thank you, Senator Leahy, and good morning, everyone.   It’s a pleasure to be here.   And it’s a privilege to join with so many dedicated leaders, advocates, and partners as – together – we work to update our approach and increase our effectiveness in addressing one of the greatest public safety and public health epidemics of our time: opiate drug abuse.   Thank you all for being part of today’s discussion and for the work you do every day to strengthen communities and to save lives.

 

I especially want to thank Tris Coffin and his team for welcoming us here and for hosting and organizing this conference.   Since becoming U.S. Attorney last year, Tris has worked tirelessly to raise awareness about the growing problem of opiate drug abuse and to forge the partnerships necessary to reverse current trends.   Today’s participants – policymakers and police chiefs; law enforcement officers and health care providers; educators and researchers; physicians, professors, and parents – are proof of his ability to bring the right people, with the right expertise, together in common cause.

 

When it comes to effectively preventing, reducing, and combating drug use – and, in particular, the abuse of opiate-based prescriptions – there is no one path to engagement.   And, unfortunately, there is no single or sure solution.   If we are going to succeed in protecting the health and safety of our communities, if we are going to arm our neighbors – and, especially, our children – with the information they need to make good choices, we need a variety of perspectives and approaches.

 

Many of you have already pledged and are providing your best efforts in this work.   And I’m here today to tell you that I stand with you.

 

For me, the issue of drug abuse, and the fight against drug-fueled crime and violence, has been a personal and professional concern for decades.   As a prosecutor, as a judge, as a U.S. Attorney, and as the Deputy Attorney General, addressing the causes and consequences of drug abuse was at the forefront of my work.   Today, as Attorney General and as a parent, it remains a top priority.

 

This morning, I want to talk with you about the Justice Department’s latest efforts in this area.   But, first, let me be clear that this work, and this fight, must extend beyond the Justice Department, beyond our network of U.S. Attorney’s Offices, and beyond our law enforcement community.   I’m counting on partners at every level of government and across a range of professional disciplines to help the Justice Department meet its obligations to combat crime and to ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to improve their lives and fulfill their potential.

 

Meeting our responsibilities – to ourselves and to each other, to communities in need and to our neighbors in crisis, and to the alarming number of children and young people who are at risk of being caught in the grip of drug addiction – depends on the priorities we set today.   It depends on the commitment we make today.   And it depends on our willingness to look – clearly and thoroughly – at what we’re up against.

 

Today, prescription drug abuse is considered the fastest-growing drug problem in the county.   And opiate-based painkillers are among the most commonly abused drugs.   Because these medications can be effective for the treatment of serious pain, are produced by legitimate companies, and may be lawfully prescribed, many misperceive that these drugs as “safe.”   But, as you know, they can be harmful – and even fatal – when used inappropriately.

 

Over the last two decades, prescriptions for opiate-based drugs have risen from 40 million to 180 million.   From 2004 to 2008, the number of emergency department visits involving nonmedical use of narcotic pain relievers rose from nearly 150,000 to more than 300,000 – an increase of 111 percent.  

 

As Tris noted, from 1998 to 2008, there was a 400 percent increase in treatment admissions for people primarily abusing prescription pain killers.   And, over the last decade, the number of fatal poisonings involving opiate-based drugs like oxycodone and methadone more than tripled.

 

The latest research shows that the number of people in this country who try prescription drugs for non-medical purposes now exceeds the number of first-time marijuana users.   In the past month, more than 6 million Americans have used prescription drugs for non-medical reasons.   And, in the past year, one in seven teens abused prescription drugs to get high.  

 

Behind these statistics are the stories you’ve seen for yourselves and you will hear about today – stories of lives shattered and of communities and campuses devastated by the consequences of drug abuse.

 

So how can we combat a problem so widespread? How can we protect our communities? How can we prevent future tragedies?

 

These questions can’t be answered easily or quickly.   But they can be answered- man made problems are susceptible to man made solutions.   We can – and we must – begin to answer them by coming together, by sharing information more effectively, by using limited resources more wisely, and by being clear about what approaches are working and where improvements must be made.

 

Despite the challenges before us, there is good cause for optimism.   Research has shown that targeted law enforcement efforts work.   Sound regulatory policies work.   Educational outreach works.   Quality prevention and drug treatment programs work.   In other words – with a comprehensive, multi-faceted strategy – it’s within our power to help those who need us most.  

 

We can all be encouraged that this work is a priority across the Administration.   In May, President Obama released a new National Drug Control Strategy that establishes clear goals for reducing drug abuse.   As the Justice Department takes steps to help implement this strategy, our efforts are focused on education, treatment, enforcement, and policy solutions – and they reflect what we’ve learned in the field and from leading researchers.

 

First and foremost, we know that we must educate doctors.   Physicians and health care providers can be one of our best lines of defense – but only if they know why extra precautions may be necessary when prescribing opiate painkillers.   They must also know how to recognize and address the signs of prescription drug abuse. And, where available, they need to utilize the information available from state Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs.

 

To date, 34 states – including Vermont – have established Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs, which have proven effective in combating “doctor-shopping.”   I’m pleased that, in this Fiscal Year, the Justice Department is providing $7 million to support Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs.   Of that amount, more than $5 million is being awarded to states.

 

Second, our outreach efforts must also help and encourage people to clean up their communities by cleaning out their medicine cabinets.   Recent surveys show that more than half of those who admit to abusing prescription painkillers said they got drugs "from a friend or relative for free"– not from their own doctor.   Without question, getting old, unused, or expired drugs out of medicine cabinets is critical.

 

That’s why, on Saturday, September 25th, the DEA is sponsoring the first nationwide drug "Take-Back" initiative.   At collection sites across the country, people will be able to drop off prescription drugs to be disposed of safely – at no cost and with no questions asked.   Here in Vermont, there will be some 50 collection sites – and I ask all of you to help get the word out.

 

Third, we must provide the tools and support necessary for law enforcement officers to investigate drug supply sources and to raise awareness about the signs and dangers of prescription drug abuse.

 

One promising approach to choking off the supply chain is the deployment of Tactical Diversion Squads, which the DEA created to maximize federal, state, and local law enforcement resources.   In 37 cities, and counting, these squads are investigating major drug diversion nodes.   So far this year, they’ve been responsible for the seizure of more than $62 million in proceeds and assets and have helped to shut down “pill mill” pain clinics, prescription forgery rings, and illegal online pharmacies.  

 

In addition to investigations and prosecutions, we’re also focused on prevention – and the Department is proud to be working with the Partnership for a Drug Free America in developing programs to help law enforcement officers educate the people and communities they serve.

 

Fourth, we must ensure that quality drug treatment programs are available and accessible.   We’ve all seen the role addiction often plays in crime, incarceration, and recidivism.   And we must break this cycle.   One place we’re seeing remarkable success is in our drug courts.   By collaborating with social service and public health agencies to address underlying problems like addiction and mental illness, drug courts are reducing recidivism. They’re also resulting in significant cost-savings – an average of more than $1,300 per participant.  

 

Finally, in addition to effective programming, we must support sound regulatory and policy improvements.   As we saw with the Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act, which went into effect early last year, well-considered federal efforts can work.   This new law has had a significant impact on reducing the number of illegal Internet-based pharmacies and, in turn, the accessibility of many drugs.

 

We must also support policies that would allow drug consumers to safely dispose of controlled substances, by means to be specified by the DEA.   Strange as it seems, current law does not provide for this.   It should.

 

Now, I realize I’ve covered a lot of ground today – but there is much more that can be, and must be, done to combat prescription drug abuse and the devastating consequences of opiate addiction.   That’s what this conference is all about – identifying the solutions we need and determining where we must focus, and how we can strengthen, our efforts.

 

By your very presence here today, you have demonstrated your commitment to solving a problem that – simply put – will determine the future course of lives, families, and communities across the country.   I share your commitment.   And I believe that, together, we can create a safer, healthier nation.

 

On behalf of the Department of Justice, I look forward to working with you in the critical days ahead.   I’m grateful to each of you.   Our nation is counting on all of you.

 

Thank you.

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