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Attorney General Jeff Sessions Delivers Remarks on New Initiative to Combat Deadly Fentanyl Crisis


Portland, ME
United States

Thank you, Halsey (Frank), for that kind introduction and for your nearly 31 years of service at the Department of Justice—including 28 years as an AUSA.  You’ve got a track record of taking on drug traffickers and firearms offenders.  You can take a lot of pride in that as a prosecutor.

The President just nominated a Supreme Court Justice who is the son of a prosecutor.  He grew up with a mom who was practicing closing arguments at the dinner table.  He understands and appreciates the value of the work that we do and he is committed to interpreting the law as written.  He serves under the law—not over it. 

I think he is a fabulous choice and all of us in the law enforcement community can feel good about his nomination.

I am honored to be here with my fellow prosecutors and law enforcement officers to make an announcement about our fight against the opioid epidemic.

But first I want to thank all of the federal officers who are here with us today, who do so much to fight opioid trafficking here in Maine as well as across state lines and even international lines.  That includes Special Agent Kevin Connelly from ATF, Special Agent in Charge Brian Doyle from DEA, Special Agent Chris Bennett from HSI, and Deputy Chief Patrol Agent Jason Schneider from U.S. Border Patrol.

And, of course, I want to thank our new DEA Director Uttam Dhillon for joining me here today. Uttam has had a long career battling drug traffickers and violent crime and I am confident he will be a strong leader for our great men and women at the DEA for this critical fight.

And while we are inexpressibly proud of our fabulous federal officers, we also understand and appreciate the fact that 85 percent of the law enforcement officers in this country serve at the state and local levels.  You are the ones in the trenches every day gathering the street-level intelligence that can lead to national and even international cases.

And so I want to give a special thanks to our state law enforcement officials, including Deputy Director Dave Kelley with the New England High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) and Major Brian Scott and Lieutenant Colonel Bill Harwood with the Maine State Police, as well as more than a dozen police chiefs, four sheriffs, and our other local partners.

It is an honor to be with you all.

I want to commend you for several recent successes that you have achieved in the fight against the opioid epidemic.

At the end of June, working with partners at the DEA and state and local law enforcement, you put a fentanyl dealer from Rangeley behind bars for two years. 

The same day, you secured an eight-year sentence for a heroin dealer in Bangor.  In recent months you have put several other heroin dealers behind bars—including one from Connecticut and one from New York.  That is great work.

Enforcing our drug laws has never been more important than it is right now, because today we are facing the deadliest drug crisis in American history.  We’ve never seen anything like it.

Approximately 64,000 Americans lost their lives to drug overdoses in 2016– the highest drug death toll and the fastest increase in that death toll in American history.

That’s twice the size of Bangor and it’s nearly the population of Portland—Maine’s biggest city—dead in one year just from overdoses. 

Meanwhile millions of people are living with the consequences of a family member’s addiction or an addiction of their own.  It is incredible but true that for Americans under the age of 50, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death.

Preliminary data show that the drug death toll continued to rise in 2017, but at a much slower pace.  And according to CDC data from November, it appears as though we are starting to make progress.

But sadly, Maine knows the tragic consequences of drugs and addiction all too well.

With a rate nearly double the national average, Maine is in the top 10 states in the Union for opioid overdose deaths.  And it’s only rising: Maine is breaking record after tragic record—just like the country as a whole.

And these are not just numbers – these are moms, dads, daughters, spouses, friends, and neighbors.

They include young people like Ashley Winchell of Bangor, who was just 21 years old when she died of a heroin overdose last year.

They include Molly Parks, from Old Orchard Beach.  She was just 24 she was found dead in a restaurant bathroom with a needle in her arm.  She had her whole life ahead of her.

They also include a 25-year old mother who overdosed and died in front of her six-year old son.  When police arrived at the scene, the boy told them, mom won’t wake up.

Unfortunately, there are many more tragic stories like these.  This crisis is devastating.  But we will not stand by idle.

We are not going to accept the status quo.  We will not allow this to continue.

President Trump has made it clear that business as usual is over. 

Ending the drug crisis is a top priority of this administration.  President Trump has a comprehensive plan to end this national public health emergency.

He has negotiated and signed bipartisan legislation to spend six billion dollars to win against this danger.

He wants to improve our prevention efforts by launching a national awareness campaign about the dangers of opioid abuse.  He has set the ambitious goal of reducing opioid prescriptions in America by one-third in three years—a goal we can achieve.  And he is a strong supporter of our law enforcement efforts.

He recognizes that law enforcement is crime prevention.

We’re not just locking up criminals for the sake of locking them up.  We are preventing addiction from spreading and we are saving lives.

That is what is at stake in our work.  And that is why we are attacking the gangs and cartels—damaging, weakening, and even destroying their distribution networks.

Yesterday I announced our next steps to do just that.

It’s called Operation Synthetic Opioid Surge—or S.O.S.

I am ordering our prosecutors in 10 districts with some of the highest overdose death rates—including this one—to systematically and relentlessly prosecute every synthetic opioid case.  We can weaken these networks, reduce fentanyl availability, and save lives. 

We are going to arrest, prosecute, and convict these fentanyl dealers and we are going to put them in jail.

When it comes to synthetic opioids, there is no such thing as a small case. Three milligrams of fentanyl can be fatal. That’s equivalent to a pinch of salt. It’s not even enough to cover-up Lincoln’s face on a penny. Depending on the purity, you could fit more than 1,000 fatal doses of fentanyl in a teaspoon.

I want to be clear about this: we are not focusing on users, but on those supplying them with deadly drugs.

Manatee, Florida, shows that a united and determined effort, focusing on fentanyl dealers, can save lives.

 Your counterparts in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Middle District of Florida tried this strategy in Manatee County, which is just south of Tampa. Like many parts of this country, they had experienced massive increases in opioid deaths in 2015 and 2016.

In response, they began prosecuting synthetic opioid sales, regardless of the amount.  They prosecuted 45 synthetic opioids traffickers—and deaths started to go down.

From the first six months of 2016 to 2017, overdose deaths dropped by 22 percent.  This past January, they had nearly a quarter fewer overdoses as the previous January.  The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office went from responding to 11 overdoses a day to an average of one a day.  Those are remarkable results.

As you implement this proven strategy, I am sending in reinforcements to help you.

Last month, I sent more than 300 new AUSAs to districts across America—including two here to this office.  It was the largest prosecutor surge in decades.

Yesterday, I announced that each of these ten districts where the drug crisis is worst will receive an additional prosecutor.

As a former AUSA and U.S. Attorney myself, I know what you can do—and my expectations could not be higher.  Our goal is to reduce crime, reduce fentanyl, and to reduce deaths, plain and simple.

I believe that this new strategy and these additional prosecutors effectively used will have a significant impact.

Halsey and I have talked about this.  He is excited about it and I know that you all are going to achieve similar results here in Maine.

And I believe that this is going to build on the other new tools that we have given our prosecutors over these past 18 months.

One of these tools is the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit – a new data analytics program that focuses specifically on opioid-related health care fraud.  This sort of data analytics team can tell us important information, like who is prescribing the most drugs, who is dispensing the most drugs, and whose patients are dying of overdoses.

As part of this initiative, I sent out 12 prosecutors to hot spot districts to focus on these cases. They are achieving results.

We have begun J-CODE, the Joint Criminal Opioid Darknet Enforcement Team, a new team that is targeting the threat of illegal online opioid sales.

A few weeks ago, we had another record breaking Health Care Fraud Takedown where we charged more than 600 defendants – including 76 doctors – with more than $2 billion in fraud.

This was the most doctors, and the most fraud, as well as opioid related fraud, that the Department of Justice has taken down in any single law enforcement action.

Your office played a role in that effort. You charged an athletic trainer from Rockland with $177,000 worth of alleged false claims to Medicare, Medicaid, and health insurance plans. 

Since January, we have charged more than 200 doctors for opioid-related crimes. Sixteen those doctors prescribed more than 20 million pills illegally.

Another doctor was found with $1 million under his bed.

In the first three months of 2018, the DEA seized a total of more than 200 pounds of suspected fentanyl in cases from Detroit to Boston. 

In 2017, we tripled the number of fentanyl prosecutions at the federal level.

In the first quarter of 2018, opioid prescriptions went down by nearly 12 percent compared to the first quarter of 2017, when President Trump took office.

We are right to celebrate our accomplishments, it gives us confidence we can do more.

That’s why we are going to keep arming you with the tools that you need to keep drugs out of this community.  We are going to keep up this pace.

We will be relentless. We will sustain this effort.  

We know that our mission is difficult—but it’s not hopeless.  Together, we can break the vicious cycle of drug abuse, addiction, and overdose that has devastated countless American families.

And so I want to close by reiterating my deep appreciation and profound thanks to all the women and men of law enforcement – federal, state, local, and tribal – as well as their families, for sacrificing so much and putting your lives on the line every day so that the rest of us may enjoy the safety and security you provide.

The work that you do is essential.  I believe it.  The Department of Justice believes it.  And President Trump believes it.

You can be certain about this: we have your back and you have our thanks.

Updated July 13, 2018