Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
Before we begin today’s program, I want to take a moment to address the devastating events that occurred yesterday at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. Like you, I was shocked and appalled by this monstrous and tragic attack. Although we are still gathering information, the Department of Justice is already on the ground assisting local law enforcement and we will continue to do everything we can to support the Douglas County community going forward. My heart goes out to all those affected by this heinous crime and I know that the entire Justice Department family – and all of us here today – will keep the victims and their loved ones in our thoughts and prayers.
Thank you, U.S. Attorney [Carmen] Ortiz, for those kind words – and for your outstanding service to the people of Massachusetts over the course of this administration. I’d also like to recognize Attorney General [Maura] Healey and Commissioner [Monica] Bharel for the bold steps they have taken – beginning the moment they took office this year – to clamp down on opioid trafficking and abuse throughout Massachusetts. And I’d like to thank Dr. [Dennis] Dimitri and the entire Massachusetts Medical Society for advancing public health and public safety; for bringing attention and expertise to the critical issue we’re discussing today; and for hosting this vitally important summit that recognizes the critical public health issues in what far too many, for far too long, have seen only as a law enforcement issue. It’s a pleasure to be in Waltham this morning and a privilege to join such a distinguished group of public servants and health experts as we explore new strategies for curbing drug abuse and building stronger, safer communities.
It is particularly appropriate that this morning’s gathering is taking place at the Massachusetts Medical Society. As the oldest continually operating state medical organization in the United States, the Massachusetts Medical Society has set the standard for its peers for well over two centuries. You have attracted and united more than 25,000 physicians and medical students behind your essential mission of “promot[ing] … the health, benefit and welfare of the citizens of the Commonwealth.” And you have built a striking record of success in educating and advocating for Massachusetts’s medical professionals and the patients for whom they care. I applaud you for leading a truly comprehensive campaign to reduce prescription drug abuse in the Commonwealth – and I want you to know that the Department of Justice and the entire Obama Administration, is standing with you in this fight. Through the tireless efforts of our Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) – under the leadership of Acting Administrator [Chuck] Rosenberg – we are making major strides on all four of the action areas identified in the White House Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention Plan, which President Obama discussed in his weekly address just a few days ago: enforcement, disposal, monitoring and education.
On the enforcement front, we are using every civil, criminal and administrative tool we have to discover, disrupt and dismantle illegal traffic in pharmaceutical controlled substances – and we are making real and significant progress. We have targeted the illegal supply chain, thwarted doctor-shopping attempts and disrupted so-called “pill mills” – just a few days ago, we won a conviction in a 49-count case against a former heart surgeon in Georgia who aggressively prescribed controlled narcotics to patients who were addicted to them and who, at one point, received more Oxycodone pills than any other doctor in the state. Further highlighting the often heartbreaking costs of addiction, the doctor was himself addicted to painkillers. We have ramped up our focus on individuals and organizations who use the Internet to buy and sell controlled substances and we have seen a marked reduction in online trafficking as a result. And we are building cooperation and seamless communication between agencies tasked with combating this challenge by integrating DEA agents and investigators with other federal, state and local law enforcement officers in 66 Tactical Diversion Squads stationed across 41 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia – with three more on the way. Just this past May, our collaborative approach enabled us to execute the largest pharmaceutical-related takedown in the DEA’s history – a takedown of pill mills as well as medical professionals who were illegally diverting prescription painkillers; diverting them away from real patients and into the hands of street sellers. This operation spanned four states, involved nearly a thousand law enforcement officers and resulted in 280 arrests – including 22 doctors and pharmacists.
We also know, as you do, that opioid addiction often begins not with a law-breaking doctor, but with a family medicine cabinet. That’s why we are working to ensure that unused, unwanted and expired medications are responsibly discarded and taken out of circulation. In the last five years, the DEA has held ten National Take Back Days – most recently this past Saturday – when the public is encouraged to bring excess prescription drugs to thousands of designated sites across the country for safe and secure disposal. In only the last nine Take Back Days, the DEA – in conjunction with state, local and tribal law enforcement partners – collected nearly 5 million pounds of medication – that is, 2,400 tons of medication that is no longer circulating through our communities. And last year, the DEA introduced several new ways to dispose of old or unused prescription drugs – including many more authorized drop-off sites, as well as pre-paid return-mail packages – that will make this program even more efficient and even more effective.
Still, aggressive enforcement and conscientious disposal are just part of the picture. We are also continuing to support Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs at the state level, because we recognize that rigorous monitoring is one of the best ways to detect and prevent the diversion of pharmaceuticals. Forty-nine states and Guam currently have monitoring programs in place, while Washington, D.C., has authorized one and we look forward to working with every jurisdiction going forward – in part through the Harold Rogers Prescription Drug Monitoring grant program – to make those programs more robust and more effective. At the same time, we have amplified our education and outreach efforts to help inform professional associations, industry organizations and law enforcement agencies at all levels about the latest developments, programs and policies affecting opioid trafficking and addiction. In FY 2014 alone, the DEA conducted 150 such events, building on 114 the year before. And in addition to monitoring, we are working to expand medication assisted treatment for opioid use disorders and placing additional focus on treatment for incarcerated individuals who have experienced issues with addiction to help ensure that they can return to their communities as productive members of society.
This work has taken on a special importance, because as we have learned from scientific studies, treatment providers, victims and investigations, prescription drug abuse is a common precursor to the abuse of heroin – an incredibly dangerous drug that has also experienced increased use in recent years. That’s why, since April, a multi-agency Heroin Task Force has been meeting to design a comprehensive plan – which will be delivered to Congress by year’s end – to counter the spread of heroin nationwide. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice/Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force has allocated additional funding to help address the surge of heroin overdoses in the New England region, including here in eastern Massachusetts. And the DEA recently led several major actions against drug cartels and heroin traffickers, while raising awareness about the growing presence of fentanyl in heroin sold on the streets, which substantially and tragically increases the risk of overdose.
Of course, we won’t be there to stop every person from abusing heroin or prescription painkillers – but those of us in law enforcement can take steps to ensure that we are prepared to respond when we do encounter heroin- or prescription-drug-related emergencies in the field. That’s why my predecessor, Attorney General Eric Holder, urged local law enforcement authorities to carry the drug naloxone – which can help restore breathing after an overdose – as a standard tool on their beats. He followed up by issuing a memorandum last July directing federal law enforcement agencies – including the DEA, the ATF, the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service – to assess whether their agents should be trained and equipped to recognize and respond to opioid overdoses, in part by carrying naloxone. And since that time, our Bureau of Justice Assistance has provided a Law Enforcement Naloxone Toolkit, which serves as an information clearinghouse to help law enforcement agencies establish their own naloxone programs. This is an area in which Massachusetts has been a groundbreaking leader and I want to recognize all of you in this room for your work on this issue. You have saved lives.
Through all of these efforts, we at the Department of Justice are fighting diligently, creatively and collaboratively – with the partnership of individuals like all of you, each and every day – to ensure that our communities have the assistance, the resources and the guidance they need to bring wrongdoers to justice and to end this deadly crisis once and for all. Although our ongoing work will not be easy, it is clear from what we have already accomplished that we have reason for optimism. If we are able to harness the expertise, the passion and the conviction assembled in this room today, I have no doubt that we can preserve opportunity, strengthen families and save lives. After all, today’s summit is not only about reversing the spread of opioids – it’s about mending the basic fabric of our communities. It's about providing real help, with true compassion and without judgment, to those in the grips of an addiction that has coiled around their spirit and their soul. It’s about making real and lasting progress on behalf of those in desperate need. And it’s about confronting a deep and persistent challenge in order to chart a new course for our future and for the future of our country.
That is what the women and men in this room have always done. It is what our nation has always done. And it is what the Department of Justice, with your invaluable partnership, will continue to do. As we gather here today – with so many individuals and organizations committed to this cause – I am hopeful for all that the future holds. I am thankful for your inspiring leadership. And I am confident that, by continuing our partnership and staying true to our guiding ideals, we will succeed – together – in creating the stronger, safer, healthier communities that our children – that all Americans – deserve.