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Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker Delivers Remarks in Cincinnati on Efforts to Combat the Opioid Crisis, Announces $16 Million in Funding to Serve Las Vegas Mass Shooting Victims


Cincinnati, OH
United States

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you, Ben, for that kind introduction, and thank you for your 13 years of service to the Department of Justice.

Thank you also to Kentucky U.S. Attorneys Rob Duncan of the Eastern District and Russell Coleman of the Western District, U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart of the Southern District of West Virginia, and the Assistant Attorney General in charge of our Criminal Division Brian Benczkowski.

Thank you all for your work to reduce crime in this community and across America.

As each one of you knows, this Department of Justice supports you, your prosecutors, and the state and local partners you work with. 

We strongly support first responders and victims of crime.

And so—before I say anything else—I want to announce our next step to do just that.

Today, I am announcing that the Department of Justice will provide $16 million for the victims of last October’s mass shooting in Las Vegas and for the first responders who came to the scene.  These funds can be used to help pay for counseling, therapy, rehabilitation, trauma recovery, and legal aid.  These new funds will build on the $3 million that we have already provided for law enforcement officers in the Las Vegas area.

We cannot undo the harm that was done that day, but we are doing what we can to help Las Vegas heal.

We are also working to reduce gun violence in this country.  On Wednesday, I announced a new Memphis Crime Gun Strike Force, which will bring together the ATF and Memphis police to find, investigate, and prosecute firearms offenders.

But we have to acknowledge the hard truth that drugs are killing more Americans than guns—a lot more.

Nationwide in 2016, there were more than four times as many fatal drug overdoses as there were gun homicides.

Your work to fight the opioid epidemic is more important than ever—because today we are facing the deadliest drug crisis in American history.  Last year 70,000 Americans lost their lives to drug overdoses.  That is the highest drug death toll in American history—by far.  That’s roughly the size of the population of Canton, Ohio, dead in just one year from drug overdoses.  More Americans died of drug overdoses last year than from car crashes.

Despite rising prosperity and better technology, life expectancy in the United States actually declined over the last three years—and largely because of this epidemic.  The last time life expectancy in this country declined for three years in a row was a century ago.  This is simply unacceptable.

And overdose deaths don’t tell the whole story.  Millions of people are living with the painful consequences of a family member’s addiction or an addiction of their own.  I personally know people whose families have been impacted by drug addiction.  We all do.

Appalachia has been especially hard hit by addiction and by opioid fraud.  Some of the first pill mills in America were started right here in Southern Ohio and Northern Kentucky.  And to this day these communities still have tragically high rates of addiction and overdose.

The drug overdose death rate in Ohio more than doubled from 2013 to 2017.  And here in Cincinnati, drug overdose deaths increased by 79 percent from 2014 to 2017.

The vast majority of those overdose deaths are from opioids.  Statewide, 85 percent of overdose deaths in 2017 were from opioids. 

This is a daunting situation.  Your work to stop drug trafficking has never been more difficult—but it has also never been more important.

The Trump administration has your back in these efforts.  The President has laid out a comprehensive plan to end this crisis.  The three parts of his plan are prevention, enforcement and treatment.

President Trump has improved our prevention efforts by launching a coordinated national awareness campaign about the dangers of opioid abuse. 

And he is a strong supporter of law enforcement.

Under his leadership, the Department of Justice has put a special focus on fighting the deadliest drugs today: synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

These drugs are so powerful that all it takes is the equivalent of a pinch of salt to be fatal. 

Not only are they powerful—they’re also easy to get.  You can go online and have them shipped right to your door.

Over the past two years, synthetic opioids have killed more Americans than any other kind of drug.  Last year these drugs killed more than 28,000 Americans.  Here in Ohio, 70 percent of overdoses deaths last year were fentanyl-related.

That’s why we’ve placed a special focus on prosecuting fentanyl cases over these past two years.

And we’ve been getting results.

Last July, the Department announced the seizure of a website that was the largest dark net marketplace in history.  It’s called AlphaBay.  It hosted more than 220,000 drug listings and was responsible for countless fentanyl overdoses, including the tragic death of a 13 year old.

In August, we announced charges in the Northern District of Ohio against a married couple who sold fentanyl on Alpha Bay.  In fact, we believe they were once the most prolific synthetic opioid traffickers on the darknet in North America.  We also worked with our partners in Canada to help them indict a man we believe was the third most prolific darknet synthetic opioid dealer in North America.

In January, we began J-CODE, a new team at the FBI that focuses specifically on the threat of online opioid sales.  They have already begun carrying out enforcement actions nationwide, arresting dozens of people across the country.

And in some of the districts where drug deaths are the highest, we are prosecuting every fentanyl trafficking case we can, even when the amount of drugs might be small.

We tried this strategy in Manatee County, Florida—just south of Tampa—and it worked.  This past January, they had half the number of overdose deaths as the previous January.  The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office went from responding to 11 overdose calls a day to an average of one a day.

This summer, we expanded that effort to 10 districts across America—including both Ohio districts, Southern West Virginia, and Eastern Kentucky.  We call it Operation S.O.S.—and we’re sending 10 more AUSAs to help carry out this strategy.

But fentanyl isn’t made in Ohio or any of these districts.  The vast majority of the fentanyl in this country is made in China.

That is why the Trump administration has become the first administration to prosecute Chinese fentanyl traffickers.

A year ago, we announced the first two indictments against Chinese nationals for trafficking synthetic drugs in the United States.  In August, we announced our third case—a 43-count indictment against a drug trafficking organization based in Shanghai.

This summer I went to China and met with Chinese officials to discuss this problem.  I made it clear to them that we want them to be our partners in these efforts—and that they’ve got to do more to stop these drugs from coming here.

But I am thankful that some help is on the way.  Last month, President Trump signed into law the STOP Act, which was authored by Senator Rob Portman of Cincinnati.  This new law means that when packages come in from overseas, the Postal Service will have to tell Customs and Border Protection basic electronic information like where it’s from, where it’s going, and what’s in it.  That information will help law enforcement find dangerous packages and the criminals who are sending them.  Just as importantly, the criminals will know that—and it will deter many of them shipping drugs in the future.

We are already interdicting drugs coming into this country at higher and higher levels.  In fiscal year 2018, the DEA seized 70 percent more fentanyl than the year before.  DEA seized enough drugs to kill every man, woman, and child in the United States.

Those interdiction efforts are important and necessary.  But we know that one of the major causes of the opioid crisis in the first place was overprescribing.  We’re told that three out of four heroin addicts in the United States first started on prescription opioids.  Even if that is an overestimate, that is still too many.

That’s why President Trump has set the goal of reducing the national opioid prescription rate by one-third in three years.  It’s an ambitious goal, but we are well on our way to achieving it. 

According to the DEA’s National Prescription Audit, in the first eight months of 2018, opioid prescriptions were down by nearly 12 percent compared to a year before.  And that's in addition to a seven percent decline last year.

We now have the lowest opioid prescription rates in 18 years.  And we’re going to bring them a lot lower.

For next year, the DEA is lowering the legal limits on opioid production by an average of 10 percent.

That will bring us to about a 44 percent decrease in opioid production since 2016.

We are making it harder to divert these pills for abuse—and we’re going after the fraudsters who exploit people suffering from addiction.

Two years in a row the Department of Justice has set records for health care fraud enforcement.  This July we charged 601 defendants with more than $2 billion in medical fraud.  This was the most doctors, the most medical personnel, and the most fraud that the Department of Justice has ever taken on in any single law enforcement action. This is the most defendants we’ve ever charged with health care fraud and the most opioid-related fraud defendants we’ve ever charged in a single enforcement action.

So far under President Donald Trump, the Department of Justice has charged more than 220 doctors with opioid-related crimes and convicted more than 80 of them.  Sixteen of those doctors prescribed more than 20.3 million pills illegally.  We have also charged another 221 other medical personnel for opioid-related crimes.

In fiscal year 2018, the Department of Justice charged six percent more drug defendants than in fiscal year 2017.  We prosecuted 36 percent more opioid defendants than the previous four-year average.  We increased heroin prosecutions by 15 percent and oxycontin prosecutions by 35 percent.  We have dramatically increased the number of fentanyl prosecutions at the federal level two years in a row.

Those numbers are important—but what is more important is that overdose deaths in Ohio and across this country may have finally stopped rising.

From 2012 to 2017, drug overdose deaths per year in this country increased by 74 percent.

According to the CDC, drug overdose deaths increased on a month-by-month basis until September 2017.  The rolling 12-month total then decreased by two percent from September 2017 through April 2018, which is the most recent data we have.

Here in Ohio, the second half of 2017 saw 23 percent fewer overdose deaths than the first half of 2017.  From September to the end of the year, overdose deaths dropped by 17 percent.

Of course, we want much bigger decreases, but this is very encouraging news.

And we’re not going to stop there.  We are continuing to support you and help you succeed.

Last month we announced our new Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force.

This new Strike Force combines the investigation, prosecution, and data analytics resources of the Criminal Division, nine U.S. Attorneys’ offices, and the FBI, DEA, and the Department of Health and Human Service’s Inspector General.

This new strike force will be composed of 12 additional opioid fraud prosecutors across our nine Appalachian districts and the surrounding areas.  That includes the districts represented by each of the U.S. Attorneys who are here today.

Each one of these new AUSAs will have their own team of federal investigators and law enforcement agents.  They’ll also be mobile—so if a small case turns into a bigger case, then they can prosecute it any Appalachian district they need to.

The Southern Hub will be based in Nashville, where I visited yesterday.

And the Northern Hub of the Strike Force will be based just across the river from here in Fort Mitchell. 

We’ve already used this Strike Force model to combat health care fraud—and it has been very successful.  In Detroit and Miami—which were the first two cities where we deployed our Health Care Fraud Strike Force— Medicare Parts A and B billings have dropped by a total of more than $2 billion since 2010.

We want to replicate that kind of success in the fight against the opioid epidemic.

This new Strike Force is going to build on the successes that we have already achieved over these past two years, and I believe that it can help provide some relief to Appalachia and to Southern Ohio.

I especially want to thank Matt Miner and Joe Beemsterboer for their great work in setting up this ARPO Strike Force. I know that you spent countless hours on the road over the past couple of months. But I also know that your tireless efforts, in conjunction with the work of the Strike Force prosecutors as well as the AUSAs in the United States Attorneys’ Offices, will pay countless dividends.

This is our latest step—but it is not our last step.  We are going to keep up this pace.  We are going to keep supporting you, arming you with new resources and new weapons.  We are going to keep coordinating with you and listening to you about how we can help.

And so I want to conclude with something a mentor of mine used to say every time he spoke to law enforcement, and I believe it too: we have your back, and you have our thanks.


Drug Trafficking
Prescription Drugs
Violent Crime
Updated November 30, 2018