Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you, Don for that kind introduction and thank you for your nearly six years of service to the Department of Justice and for your service as a state prosecutor in Alabama. Thank you also for your nine years of service in the Army Rangers and Army Special Forces. That’s probably the only kind of work that could make prosecuting criminals seem boring by comparison.
Thank you also to: U.S. Attorney Doug Overbey from the Eastern District of Tennessee, U.S. Attorney Mike Dunavant from the Western District of Tennessee, and the head of our Criminal Division, Brian Benczkowski, and Chris Evans of DEA Louisville.
I also want to recognize Criminal Chief Brent Hannafan, who is the proud son of an Iowan. Brent, thank you for your service to this Department.
As a former U.S. Attorney myself, I know how important our U.S. Attorneys and our AUSAs are to the overall efforts of the Department of Justice and to keeping our communities safe.
Thank you all for your hard work and sacrifice to reduce crime and to fight the opioid crisis.
That work 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. It’s the equivalent of the population of Jackson, Tennessee, 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 in Southern Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia. And to this day Appalachian communities still have tragically high rates of addiction and overdose.
Here in Tennessee, drug overdose deaths overall have gone up by about 50 percent since 2013 and reached record highs. Here in the Nashville-Davidson area, the increase has been even bigger: an 88 percent increase since 2013. In 2017, Davidson County was second in the state for overdose deaths.
The vast majority of those overdose deaths are from opioids. Heroin deaths have increased more than fivefold in the Nashville-Davidson region since 2013.
This is a daunting situation. Your work has never been more difficult—but it has 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 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 too easy to get. You can even 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 29,000 Americans.
And so 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 was 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 against a married couple who sold fentanyl on Alpha Bay. 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 as well.
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.
We know that 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.
Last year, we announced the first two indictments against Chinese nationals for trafficking synthetic drugs in the United States. And then 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.
Nevertheless, we are interdicting drugs coming into this country at higher and higher levels. In fiscal year 2018, the DEA seized six tons of heroin, more than 100,000 pounds of methamphetamine, and nearly two tons of fentanyl. That’s 70 percent more fentanyl than the year before. And that’s 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, it 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.
We are also lowering the legal limits on opioid production. For next year, the DEA is lowering them 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 we charged six percent more drug defendants overall than in fiscal year 2017. We prosecuted 36 percent more opioid defendants than the previous four-year average. We increased heroin prosecutions by 14 percent and oxycontin prosecutions by 37 percent. We are prosecuting more fentanyl defendants than ever before.
More importantly, however, overdose deaths in this country may have finally stopped rising or even come down.
From 2012 to 2017, drug overdose deaths per year in this country increased a shocking 74 percent.
According to the CDC, drug overdose deaths increased on a month-by-month basis until last September. The rolling 12-month total then decreased by two percent from September 2017 through April 2018, which is the most recent data we have.
These are preliminary numbers—and we want much bigger decreases—but this is good 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 will be composed of 12 additional opioid fraud prosecutors across our nine Appalachian districts and the surrounding area. Each one of these prosecutors 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 in any Appalachian district they need to.
The Northern Hub of the Strike Force will be based in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. The Southern Hub will be based right here in Nashville.
We’ve already used this Strike Force model to combat health care fraud—and it has been very successful.
We want to replicate that 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.
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 and 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.