Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you for that introduction, and more importantly, thank you for the important work that you do to help prevent the spread of drug addiction in this country. Your DARE team is ready to meet this next challenge. Just like you did in the 1980s and 90s. I saw it then.
As the data makes clear, the danger is greater than ever.
Drug abuse has become an epidemic in this country today, taking an unprecedented number of American lives. For Americans under the age of 50, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death.
In 2015, more than 52,000 Americans lost their lives to drug overdoses – 1,000 every week. More died of drug overdoses in 2015 than died from car crashes or died at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
And the numbers we have for 2016 show another increase—a big increase. Based on preliminary data, nearly 60,000 Americans lost their lives to drug overdoses last year. That will be the highest drug death toll and the fastest increase in the death toll in American history. And every day, more than 5,000 Americans abuse painkillers for the first time.
This epidemic is only growing. It’s only getting worse.
It’s being driven primarily by opioids—prescription drugs, heroin, and synthetic drugs like fentanyl. Last year, there were 1.3 million hospital visits in the United States because of these drugs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heroin use has doubled in the last decade among young people 18 to 25.
Meanwhile, drug dealers are lacing heroin and cocaine with fentanyl—a drug 30 to 50 times more powerful than heroin. As a result, the drugs on the street are now more powerful, more addictive, and more dangerous than ever. And they’re not just dangerous for users: even being accidently exposed to just a few grains of fentanyl can kill a police officer or paramedic.
Now, this is not this country’s first drug abuse crisis. In the 1980s, when I was a federal prosecutor, we confronted skyrocketing drug abuse rates across the country and we were successful. In 1980, half of our high school seniors admitted they had used an illegal drug sometime in that year. But through enforcing our laws and by developing effective prevention strategies, we steadily brought those rates down.
We were in the beginning of this fight, in 1983, when DARE was founded in Los Angeles. I believe that DARE was instrumental to our success by educating children on the dangers of drug use. I firmly believe that you have saved lives. And I want to say thank you for that. Whenever I ask adults around age 30 about prevention, they always mention the DARE program. Your efforts work. Lives and futures are saved.
Now, some people today say that the solution to the problem of drug abuse is to be more accepting of the problem of drug abuse. They say marijuana use can prevent addiction. They say the answer is only treatment. They say don’t talk about enforcement. To me, that just doesn’t make any sense. In fact, I would argue that one reason that we are in such a crisis right now is that we have subscribed to this mistaken idea that drug abuse is no big deal.
Ignoring the problem—or the seriousness of the problem—won’t make it go away. Prevention—through educating people about the danger of drugs—is ultimately how we’re going to end the drug epidemic for the long term.
Treatment is important, but treatment often comes too late. By then, people have already suffered from the effects of drugs. Then their struggle to overcome addiction can be a long process – and it can fail. I have seen families spend all their savings and retirement money on treatment programs for their children – just to see these programs fail.
Now, law enforcement is prevention. And at the Department of Justice, we are working keep drugs out of our country to reduce availability, to drive up its price, and to reduce its purity and addictiveness.
We know drug trafficking is an inherently violent business. If you want to collect a drug debt, you can’t, and don’t, file a lawsuit in court. You collect it by the barrel of a gun. There is no doubt that violence tends to rise with increased drug dealing.
Under the previous administration, the Department of Justice told federal prosecutors not to include in charging documents the full amount of drugs being dealt when the actual amount would trigger a mandatory minimum sentence. Prosecutors were required to leave out true facts in order to achieve sentences lighter than required by law. This was billed as an effort to curb “mass incarceration” of “low-level offenders”, but in reality it covered offenders apprehended with large quantities of dangerous drugs.
What was the result? It was exactly what you would think: sentences went down and crime went up. Sentences for federal drug crimes dropped by 18 percent from 2009 to 2016. Violent crime—which had been decreasing for two decades—suddenly went up again. Two years after this policy change, the United States suffered the largest single-year increase in the overall violent crime rate since 1991.
In May, after study and discussion with criminal justice experts, I issued a memorandum to all federal prosecutors regarding charging and sentencing policy that said we were going to trust our prosecutors again and allow them to honestly charge offenses as Congress intended. This simple two-page guidance instructs prosecutors to apply the laws on the books to the facts of the case, and allows them to exercise discretion where a strict application of the law would result in an injustice. Instead of barring prosecutors from faithfully enforcing the law, this policy empowers trusted professionals to apply the law fairly and exercise discretion when appropriate. That is the way good law enforcement has always worked.
But you know it’s not our privileged communities that suffer the most from crime and violence. Minority communities are disproportionately impacted by violent drug trafficking and addiction. Poor neighborhoods are too often ignored in these conversations.
Regardless of their level of wealth or their race, every American has the right to live in a safe neighborhood. Those of us who are responsible for promoting public safety cannot sit back while any American community is ravaged by crime and violence at the hands of drug traffickers. We can never yield sovereignty over a single neighborhood, city block, or street corner to drug traffickers.
Also, under President Trump’s strong leadership, this country is finally getting serious about securing our Southern border. Most of the heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and fentanyl in this country got here across border brought here by powerful Mexican drug cartels.
According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, Mexican heroin production alone increased six-fold in just four years: from eight metric tons in 2005 to 50 metric tons in 2009. That number is now 70 metric tons. And it has just kept rising. According to the Office for National Drug Control Policy, Mexican opium poppy, the heroin source, planting increased by 64 percent just from 2014 to 2015.
As a result, over the last decade, we have seen sharp increases in the purity and accessibility of heroin. We have also seen steep decreases in drug prices on the street.
But this country has paid an increasingly high price for drug abuse. We have paid for it in broken relationships and broken lives and death rates the likes of which we have never seen before.
This is why it is important to protect our country from drugs and crime by securing the border and having a lawful system of immigration in this country. It’s why I’ve urged cities and other jurisdictions to cooperate with federal authorities and turn over criminal aliens for deportation—which is what 80 percent of the American people want them to do.
Violent, transnational gangs like MS-13 take advantage of cities and states that shelter them in order to smuggle in drugs, recruit school children to join, and pillage and plunder our communities.
But the Department of Justice is working with our powerful state and local law enforcement partners to fight back against the cartels, drug traffickers, and gangs like MS-13 that sell drugs. I firmly believe that our law enforcement efforts are an essential part of the nation’s work to prevent drug abuse and save lives.
The Department is also holding drug manufacturers accountable for their actions. I am announcing today that the Department has reached a $35 million settlement with Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals for failing to notify the DEA of suspicious drug orders. These failures resulted in millions of oxycodone pills being sold on the streets.
As a result of the hard work of DOJ attorneys and law enforcement, the company has agreed to do everything they can to help us identify suspicious orders in the future. And we have sent a clear message to the drug companies: this Department of Justice will hold them accountable for their legal obligations. I believe that will prevent drug abuse, prevent new addictions from starting, and save lives.
At the Department of Justice, we will increase our work with our local and state allies to stop drug traffickers. We will track them down and allow them no quarter.
But we need you. We need DARE to prevent them from finding new victims. We need your strong leadership to deny them new customers, to help more and more Americans, especially young people with bright futures, to reject drug use as an option.
Experience has shown, sadly, that it is not enough that dangerous drugs are illegal. We also have to make them unacceptable. We have to create a cultural climate that is hostile to drug abuse. In recent years, government officials were sending mixed messages about drugs. We need to send a clear message. We must have Drug Abuse Resistance Education. DARE is the best remembered anti-drug program. I am proud of your work. It has played a key role in saving thousands of lives and futures.
So please—continue to let your voices be heard. I promise you that I will let my voice be heard. Our young people must understand that drugs are dangerous; that drugs will destroy their lives, or worse yet, end them. Let’s get the truth out there and prevent new addictions and new tragedies—and make all of our communities safer. Thank you.