Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you, President [Eli] Capilouto, for that kind introduction and for welcoming me to this proud institution. I am deeply grateful to you and your staff for welcoming me to the University of Kentucky and for hosting this important event. I also want to thank our distinguished panelists for sharing their time and perspectives. And I want to thank U.S. Attorney [Kerry] Harvey for his dedicated service to the Department of Justice and to the people of the Eastern District of Kentucky. It is a pleasure to be here. And it is a privilege to join so many law enforcement officers, scholars, students and public servants for this vital discussion about how we can continue working together to confront the opioid crisis gripping our nation; to build stronger and safer communities; and to ensure healthier and brighter futures for every American.
The explosion in opioid and heroin abuse in the U.S. in recent years is truly an epidemic and no one is immune. No individual, no family, no community. Opioid abuse knows no boundaries. It cuts across lines of age, race, gender and wealth. It afflicts cities as well as suburbs, rural towns as well as tribal communities. Just a few weeks ago, the Department of Health and Human Services released new numbers showing that 3.8 million people ages 12 and older are currently misusing prescription pain relievers in our country – a stunning indication of just how widespread this phenomenon has become.
In order to advance the fight against opioids, President Obama has proclaimed this week as Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week, which is what brings me to Lexington today. Since Sunday, the Department of Justice has been joining with our partners across the federal government and at the state and local levels to hold dozens of events like this one across the country. We are drawing attention to the urgency of heroin and prescription opioid abuse. We are improving the public’s understanding of just how destructive this epidemic is. And we are enlisting the public’s support for our ongoing work to roll back this disturbing trend.
I know that here in Kentucky, you have experienced the ravages of the heroin and opioid epidemic with particular viciousness. Last year, this state lost more than 1,200 of its people to drug overdoses – an increase of nearly 15 percent over the 2014 death toll. More than a quarter of those fatalities were caused by heroin overdoses. And more than a third were caused by fentanyl, a drug that is up to 100 times more powerful than morphine. These numbers are truly chilling, but they only tell part of the story. Earlier today, I met with a group of parents who lost children to overdoses. Their stories were devastating, but their resolve to spare other parents the same fate is inspiring. Meeting with those parents, having the privilege of hearing their stories, I was reminded of the great truth we must not forget as we confront this crisis: that those we are losing to the opioid epidemic are our children, our siblings, our friends, our neighbors and our fellow Americans. And even if we don’t personally know someone who has struggled with opioids, the consequences of this scourge ripple outwards, affecting each and every one of us. It erodes opportunity and diminishes public safety. It undermines our communities and tears at the fabric of our common life as Americans. And so, as Americans, we have a shared responsibility to end it as swiftly as possible.
I want to assure you that the Department of Justice is committed to helping Kentucky overcome this devastating epidemic. And we are determined to do everything we can to ensure that not one more parent has to endure the harrowing sorrow of losing a child. Under the excellent leadership of U.S. Attorney Harvey, the U.S. Attorney’s Office here in the Eastern District of Kentucky is working closely with DEA task forces and state and local law enforcement to prioritize prosecutions that will reduce the supply of heroin, fentanyl and other opioids. We are funneling our resources toward the most impactful cases and we are employing new strategies and approaches to enable us to go after bad actors. Through the U.S. Attorney’s Heroin Education Action Team, we are inviting relatives of overdose victims to help us raise awareness about the dangers of opioids. We are helping to collect excess and expired prescriptions, keeping them out of the wrong hands. And today, I am proud to announce more than $8.8 million dollars in new funding under our Harold Rogers Prescription Drug Monitoring grant program, which is named for the Congressman from Kentucky’s 5th District. These grants will help 20 organizations nationwide – including the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services – to enhance their monitoring tools and to further develop innovative, data-driven responses to the opioid crisis. I want to congratulate the latest grantees and I commend them for their tireless efforts.
The work we’re doing in Kentucky is part of our larger nationwide effort to combat the opioid epidemic through enforcement, prevention and diversion and treatment. On the enforcement front, we are significantly expanding our investigations into heroin and opioid traffickers. We have launched a National Heroin Initiative under our Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces Program, or OCDETF, which focuses on the operational and financial infrastructure of large-scale drug trafficking organizations. OCDETF brings together representatives from a number of agencies, including our U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, the DEA, FBI, ATF, U.S. Marshals Service and the U.S. Coast Guard, creating a broad law enforcement effort that targets syndicates at their roots. And our Office of Community Oriented Policing is funding law enforcement agencies in especially hard-hit districts through its Anti-Methamphetamine Program and its Anti-Heroin Task Force Program. In these and in many other ways, the Department of Justice is bringing all of our law enforcement assets to bear on the criminals responsible for flooding communities with illegal narcotics. And we’re seeing results. Since 2011, the Drug Enforcement Administration has opened more than 11,000 heroin-related investigations. And in fiscal year 2015, we made more than 6,000 heroin-related arrests – an increase of 190 percent since 2007.
I could not be prouder of our team – and their local partners – for all of their courageous work. But arrests and prosecutions will not end the opioid epidemic on their own. In many cases, it isn’t trafficking rings that introduce a person to opioids – it’s the household medicine cabinet. That’s why we’re engaging with drug manufacturers, wholesalers, pharmacies and doctors under the DEA’s 360 Strategy, encouraging them to follow responsible distribution and prescription practices. The 360 Strategy has also resulted in a partnership with Discovery Education, with whom we have developed an opioid and heroin curriculum for middle and high school students, their teachers and their parents. Called “Operation Prevention,” this curriculum will be available online at no cost to schools nationwide and it will be rolled out during Red Ribbon Week next month. Through efforts like this national awareness week, we’re also encouraging ordinary Americans to take simple steps that can make a big difference, things as small as locking their medicine cabinets. And we continue to facilitate the safe disposal of expired and unwanted medications through the DEA’s National Take-Back Days. Last spring, we collected over 440 tons of unwanted medications at more than 5,000 sites across the country and I encourage the public to take advantage of this free and anonymous opportunity at the next Take-Back Day, which is scheduled for October 22nd. Finally, I’m proud to announce that the Drug Enforcement Administration has taken a significant step to recognize the unique challenges posed by unlawfully diverted prescription drugs: the head of the DEA’s Diversion Control Division has been elevated to a top leadership post, reflecting the department’s commitment to an anti-opioid strategy that extends beyond traditional law enforcement work.
Of course, when individuals do fall into the clutches of addiction, we have a responsibility to help them to heal, to recover and ultimately, to overcome this debilitating disease. As law enforcement officers, that responsibility often means helping heroin and opioid abusers in the most perilous moments of an overdose, when seconds count and lives are at stake. To prepare local law enforcement for these emergencies, my predecessor, Attorney General Eric Holder, urged officers to carry the drug naloxone, which can help restore breathing after an overdose, as part of their standard equipment. And since then, our Bureau of Justice Assistance has assembled a Law Enforcement Naloxone Toolkit to help state and local agencies establish their own naloxone programs. The Department of Justice is also growing the substance abuse programs available to inmates in Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities. Ranging from preliminary educational courses to intensive treatment, these offerings are essential to helping inmates embark on a new path of purpose and productivity when they return home. We are also supporting initiatives to divert opioid and heroin abusers from incarceration in the first place, especially drug courts for juvenile and adult offenders. Twelve of our U.S. Attorney’s Offices have worked with the judiciary to establish pre-sentence diversion courts that deal with drug-related issues. And our Office of Justice Programs funds a wide range of local alternatives to incarceration that reduce drug use, diminish recidivism and save precious taxpayer dollars.
All of our efforts to curb the opioid epidemic rely on one crucial ingredient: better data. Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs, or PDMPs, have proven to be one of our most effective tools for reducing prescription drug abuse. PDMPs are centralized, state-run databases that allow regulatory bodies, law enforcement agencies and public health officials to collect and analyze data on controlled substance prescriptions. Currently, 49 states, the District of Columbia and Guam all have active PDMPs, but few are as effective as the one you’re operating right here in Kentucky. According to a study conducted by the University of Kentucky and funded by our Bureau of Justice Assistance, a year after prescribers were required to register with the state database, doctor shopping dropped by more than 50 percent. The total number of controlled substance prescriptions declined. And 24 non-physician-owned pain management facilities closed their doors. I want to take this opportunity to thank this university for your assistance and support in this groundbreaking area. You were and are an invaluable partner and I thank you. Those are meaningful achievements and the Justice Department is working to help other states make similar strides through the Harold Rogers PDMP grant program that I mentioned earlier and through other Bureau of Justice Assistance funds. The great work being done here in Kentucky is a model that should be replicated around the country. So today, I issued a letter to governors calling on them to adopt PDMP best practices and to work more closely with the Department of Justice to improve data sharing of vital information from doctors and pharmacists about patient prescriptions – both within states and between neighboring states.
These are just a few of the ways that the Department of Justice is striving alongside partners like you to put an end to the heroin and opioid crisis, both here in Kentucky and across the United States. Of course, that is not a goal we will achieve overnight. Addiction is a powerful disease and our criminal adversaries are often elusive and well-funded. I know that at times, it can seem as if we are helpless in the face of this epidemic, which causes so much pain and heartbreak in so many communities and destroys lives, opportunity and hope.
But my message to you today is that we are neither helpless nor hopeless. I am confident that although the road ahead of us is long and fraught with difficulties, we will prevail over heroin and opioid abuse in the end. Because ultimately, addressing this crisis is about helping our neighbors. It’s about looking after our friends. It’s about saving our children. It’s about taking care of our own. And that’s who we are as Americans – that’s what we do in times of turmoil. Those virtues of community and compassion have carried us through so many dark passages in our past. And looking around this room at so many determined advocates and skilled professionals – at the sheer commitment and determination harnessed here today – I know that that those virtues will not fail us now. I know that together, we will continue to be relentless in our pursuit of those who illegally traffic in opioids. We will continue to teach our children about the dangers of these powerful drugs. And we will continue to help those caught in the clutches of addiction to seek help, to embrace hope and to reclaim their lives.
Each and every one of you is making a vital contribution to that effort and I want to thank you for all that you have done and all that you will continue to do. I commend your determination, your resilience and your tenacity. And I pledge that the Department of Justice – and the entire Obama Administration – will continue to do everything in our power to stand beside you as we turn the tide on heroin and opioid addiction in the United States. Thank you.