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Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks at the 2023 Comprehensive Opioid, Stimulant and Substance Use Program National Forum


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, Karhlton, for that introduction and for your leadership of the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA).

I also want to thank Amy Solomon and the rest of the team at the Office of Justice Programs (OJP) and, specifically, the staff at BJA for all their work in putting this conference together. It is an honor to be working with such a remarkable and dedicated leadership team at OJP, particularly on the important issues addressed at this conference. 

It is hard to believe that this is the first time this conference is happening in person since March 2020. All of you in the audience today, as well as countless colleagues back home, have been working tirelessly both to keep people safe and to support access to treatment and recovery services in the criminal justice system. I want to echo Amy’s thanks to all of you.

The number of organizations and communities represented here today is truly incredible: from departments of corrections to police, EMS and fire departments; from courts and community-based non-profit organizations to Tribal communities and researchers. I’ve only captured a fraction of you here today. The list goes on.

The breadth of professions, as well as individuals with direct lived experience, represented at this conference is a perfect example of the partnerships that  the Comprehensive Opioid, Stimulant, and Substance Use Program (COSSUP) is intended to create, and which are critical to doing this work at the local, state, and federal levels.

We are all gathered here to talk about saving lives, preventing future tragedies, and creating pathways to successful and healthy lives in recovery.

The conference’s theme of hope is such an important one as we all strive to do better for those who need our help. Your efforts, your partnerships, your work to move mountains, is what gives us hope and inspires us.

At the Department of Justice, we are committed to keeping communities safe. Part of that commitment is alleviating the toll of substance misuse and overdose. The Department of Justice is in a unique position to be able to tackle these challenges from multiple angles.

You have already heard from Assistant Attorney General Solomon and Director Moore about some of OJP’s work. That critical work includes substantial investments under the COSSUP. Last year, we made 92 site-based awards totaling more than $152 million. In the coming weeks, we plan to award another $154 million in funding, including almost $133 million for 76 new site-based and training and technical assistance awards. These grants will reach organizations in 32 states and will help strengthen the network of support for communities in need.

COSSUP funds a variety of activities in four key areas: (1) promoting public safety and supporting access to treatment and recovery services in the criminal justice system; (2) strengthening the collection and sharing of data to understand and address the impact of substance use and misuse; (3) aligning and maximizing resources across systems; and (4) preventing substance use and misuse.

COSSUP funding has supported vital projects in numerous communities impacted by substance use and misuse. A few examples include: diversion programs for individuals who commit low level drug-related offenses to community-based substance use and misuse and behavioral health services; programs that support law enforcement agencies in connecting individuals in need of substance use and misuse treatment to appropriate services; and programs that embed social services with law enforcement to rapidly respond to opioid overdoses where children are impacted.

I know you will hear even more in the next session about the breadth and variety of OJP’s efforts. So, I would like to take some time now to mention some of the ways that we are leveraging all of DOJ’s components and resources to impact the supply and demand side of this public safety and public health challenge.

I know that you’ll hear from Carrie Thompson, Chief of Intelligence within the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)’s Intelligence Division tomorrow morning. I don’t want to steal too much of Chief Thompson’s thunder. But I do want to speak to the important work being led by Administrator Milgram and the DEA

In 2022, DEA seized more than 58.3 million fentanyl-laced fake pills and more than 13,000 pounds of fentanyl powder. The 2022 seizures are equivalent to more than 387.9 million lethal doses of fentanyl. The 2023 fentanyl seizures so far represent over 204 million deadly doses. Through these and other enforcement efforts, DEA is keenly aware of the dangers lurking in our nation’s drug supply, within and beyond our borders.

That is why DEA is also focused on outreach, prevention and education efforts – such as the One Pill Can Kill campaign – to raise awareness among law enforcement and community partners.

DEA is also working to exercise its regulatory and oversight authorities to tackle supply and demand. For example, DEA has been working with HHS and the Department of Veterans Affairs on proposed rulemaking that extends the telehealth flexibilities that were in place during the pandemic. This rulemaking would provide safeguards for selected telemedicine consultations where medical practitioners prescribe certain controlled medications without an in-person medical evaluation under circumstances that are consistent with public health and safety. In fact, DEA will be holding public listening sessions on September 12th and 13th to receive comments from healthcare practitioners, experts, advocates, patients, and other members of the public to inform this process. Through this proposed rulemaking, DEA seeks to expand access to opioid use disorder medications for people facing difficulties accessing in-person health care providers.

DEA is also working closely with the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to provide access to medications for opioid use disorder at all BOP facilities. After many months of working closely with our partners at the Department of Health and Human Services, specifically the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, we are close to the final steps in this process.

That effort is part of BOP’s work to expand access to Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) for people with opioid use disorder. BOP provides all three FDA-approved medications, in conjunction with individualized psychosocial interventions, to those individuals. MAT participation has increased over 120% from April 2022 to April 2023. In FY22, counting both those who received treatment in BOP’s institutions and those receiving treatment in community custody, 3,208 individuals participated in the MAT program. Another 2,824 individuals have participated in MAT in the first five months of FY23, and BOP anticipates that the MAT program will continue to grow moving forward.

Additionally, about a year and a half ago in April 2022, DOJ’s Civil Rights Division issued guidance on protections under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) for people with opioid use disorder who are in treatment or recovery. The guidance was and continues to be a notice to the public about the Justice Department’s commitment to safeguarding individuals’ rights and legal protections. And the guidance specifically covers individuals with opioid use disorder in justice settings, including treatment courts and jails.

To further this guidance and its dissemination, our Civil Rights Division and OJP worked together to include a statement in select Fiscal Year 2023 solicitations, including COSSUP. That statement noted recent agreements with state and county correctional facilities concerning restrictions on access to opioid use disorder medications in violation of the ADA. The statement includes a findings report about suicides and failure to provide those medications in a county jail, which were considered violations of the 8th and 14th amendment rights of institutionalized persons.

The Civil Rights Division has also done important enforcement work in this area. In February 2022, for example, the division filed suit against Pennsylvania’s Unified Judicial System, alleging that it violates the ADA through component courts’ restrictions on the use of medications for opioid use disorder in court supervision programs; those included drug courts, mental health courts and probation programs.

Civil rights enforcement work by U.S. Attorneys’ Offices has likewise brought positive results in this area. One example is a Settlement Agreement with the Massachusetts Trial Court that ensured that participants in Massachusetts drug courts would not be prohibited from using opioid treatment medications prescribed by a licensed prescriber or opioid treatment program.

Finally, the Civil Division and U.S. Attorneys’ Offices throughout the country are working to hold accountable those who fueled the opioid crisis by flouting the law. In March, I established the Opioid Epidemic Civil Litigation Task Force to ensure a coordinated, consistent strategy in our litigation and investigations involving corporate actors alleged to have contributed to the opioid epidemic, including by diverting prescription opioids. We are currently pursuing cases against multiple pharmacies and distributors for alleged violations of the Controlled Substances Act and False Claims Act. We will continue seeking to hold accountable corporations who chose to prioritize profits over following the law, causing great harm to communities.    

All these efforts and resources reflect the Justice Department’s commitment to addressing and preventing substance misuse in our communities.

Many of us know all too well the toll that substance misuse and overdose can take on individuals, families and communities. I have represented people struggling with substance use disorder and seen the devastating impact it has had on their lives. I have also personally experienced the pain of seeing loved ones, including in my own family, struggle with addiction. Yet we also know that, with the right support, there is hope – hope for healing and for recovery.

The stories of people affected by substance use disorders, of individuals traveling the road to and in recovery, and of the dedicated professionals who guide and support them, touch all of us. They serve as proof positive that we can rise to the challenges posed by substance use disorders in America. They offer hope and inspiration, an assurance that success is possible, and a brighter future lies ahead.

I would like to close by again thanking all of you for doing your part in your communities to address the nationwide crises of substance misuse and overdose. Thank you for being the champions of this work and for helping to make recovery not only a possibility, but a reality.

Updated August 29, 2023