Skip to main content

Attorney General Sessions Delivers Remarks in Lexington, Kentucky About the Opioid Epidemic


Lexington, KY
United States

Remarks as prepared for delivery.

Thank you, Rob, for that kind introduction.  And thank you for your 13 years of service at the Department of Justice.

I also want to thank my friend Andy Barr.  He and I had a good conversation the other day about fighting the opioid epidemic.  He has a real passion for this issue, and he’s a strong supporter of state and local law enforcement.

It’s good for me to be back in the Bluegrass State.  One of the things I enjoyed most about serving in the United States Senate was getting to know Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul.  They are good friends we have worked together on many projects.

But before I say anything else, I want to take a moment to honor two Kentucky law enforcement officers whom we lost recently. 

Officer Rodney Smith of the Hickman Police Department in the Western District made the ultimate sacrifice two weeks ago, leaving behind his wife and beautiful family.

And on Tuesday night, Officer Scott Hamilton of Pikeville was killed in the line of duty.  He had served for 12 years and leaves behind his wife and infant daughter.

I can’t imagine what these families are going through right now.  But they are in our thoughts and prayers.

The sacrifice of officers like Officer Smith and Officer Hamilton just shows what a noble calling it is to wear the badge.  These officers loved their communities enough that they continually put the safety of others before their own.

And that’s what law enforcement officers do every day across America.

That’s why it is always such an honor for me to be here with you today.

I have visited more than 30 US Attorney offices in the past year.  I’m always inspired to meet the attorneys, investigators, and officers who are in the trenches every day making us safer.

I want to thank some of the federal officers who are here with us today, including Norman Arflack with the US Marshals, Chris Evans of DEA, Amy Hess with the FBI, and Stuart Lowery of ATF.

And of course I want to thank all of the state and local law enforcement officers who are here as well: Sheriff Witt of Fayette County, Commissioner Sanders of the Kentucky State Police, Sheriff Perdue, Chief Monroe of the University of Kentucky, and our newly-appointed Police Chief here in Lexington, Lawrence Weathers.

The President and I are proud to stand with all of you.

President Trump understands that law enforcement officers are not the problem – they’re the solution.

It was largely because of officers like all of you that crime declined in America for 20 years.

From 2014 to 2016, however, the trends reversed.  The violent crime rate went up by nearly seven percent.  Robberies went up.  Assaults went up nearly 10 percent.  Rape went up by nearly 11 percent.  Murder shot up by more than 20 percent.

Meanwhile, we began to suffer the deadliest drug crisis in our history.  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 the equivalent of the entire city of Bowling Green dying from drug overdoses in a single year.

Preliminary data show another—but what appears to be a smaller—increase for 2017.  Amazingly, for Americans under the age of 50, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death.

This epidemic is being driven primarily by opioids – prescription painkillers, heroin, or even synthetic drugs like fentanyl.  In 2016, opioid overdoses killed 42,000 Americans –five times the number from 17 years ago.  Over those 17 years, it is estimated that the opioid crisis cost this country $1 trillion.

Today we are experiencing death rates the like of which we have never seen before.  By the time I have finished speaking, another American will have died of an opioid overdose, and another baby will be born in the United States who is physically dependent on opioids.

Sadly, Kentucky knows these tragic consequences of addiction all too well.

Just a few minutes ago, I met with 10 Kentucky families who have suffered as a result of opioid addiction. 

I want to thank them for sharing their experiences and their insights with me.  Their example of personal strength is inspiring. 

We have to put an end to this crisis, so that more families don’t have to go through what they have endured.

There were more than 1,400 fatal overdoses in Kentucky in 2016 and Kentucky had the fifth highest drug overdose death rate in America.

Nearly half of these deaths were the result of fentanyl.  And one third involved heroin.

Here in Fayette County, the number of heroin-related overdose deaths more than doubled in just three years.  In 2017, Lexington-area paramedics used Narcan—which is an opioid reversal drug—every single day of the year.  On an average day, they used it on seven different people.

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

One of the root causes of this epidemic is the fact that we prescribe too many opioid painkillers.  Sales of prescription painkillers quadrupled between 1999 and 2010.  In some states there are more opioid prescriptions than people.

Studies have found that our country consumes the vast majority of the world’s hydrocodone and oxycodone. 

And yet, according to a report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, common over the counter non-opioid medications are about as effective against certain kinds of back and joint pain as prescription opioids.

Overprescribing risks spreading addiction, and it leads to pills getting into the wrong hands. 

A survey back in 2014 found that nearly 6,000 Americans abuse prescription drugs for the first time every day, causing an untold number of addictions.

I want to thank all of you for doing your part to end this crisis.  When we enforce our drug laws, we prevent addiction and violence from spreading.  The work that you do helps keep drugs out of our country, reduce their availability, drive up their price, and reduce their purity and addictiveness.  That really does save lives.

And that’s why this Department has been so aggressively pursuing those who would profit off of addiction.

This past summer, the Department announced the largest health care fraud takedown in American history.  DOJ coordinated the efforts of more than 1,000 state and federal law enforcement agents to arrest more than 400 defendants—including more than 50 doctors.  These defendants allegedly committed more than $1 billion in fraud.

More than 120 of these defendants have been charged with opioid-related crimes, which means this was also the largest opioid-related fraud enforcement action in American history.

Just days later, the Department announced the seizure of the largest dark net marketplace in history – AlphaBay.  This site hosted some 220,000 drug listings and was responsible for countless synthetic opioid overdoses, including the tragic death of a 13 year old.

In 2017, our prosecutors charged more than 3,000 defendants with opioid-related crimes.  Our fentanyl prosecutions more than tripled in just one year.

Many of our successes have been achieved in this office.

In August, the leader of a drug conspiracy just outside of Lexington was sentenced to 28 years in prison.  He admitted to distributing a counterfeit pill – which he claimed was oxycodone but actually contained fentanyl – to a woman who overdosed and died after taking it.

And in January, three men were sentenced to a total of more than 88 years in prison for distributing heroin and fentanyl.

I’m grateful for the hard work of those in this office who prosecuted these cases, especially dedicated Assistant U.S. Attorneys like Todd Bradbury and Cynthia Rieker.

I believe that your work is having an impact on this community. 

In fact, there are some positive signs in Kentucky.  You’ve had a 29 percent decrease in opioid prescriptions over six years.  And the CDC says that the number of emergency room visits for opioid overdoses was 15 percent lower last summer than in the summer of 2016.

These developments are good, and we are right to celebrate them.

But of course, we still have a lot more work to do.

That is why we have put in place new tools to help us find evidence of drug-related crime more easily.

One of these tools is the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit – a new data analytics program I announced in August.  I created this unit to focus specifically on opioid-related health care fraud – using data to identify and prosecute those who are contributing to this opioid epidemic.  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 have assigned a dozen experienced prosecutors in opioid hot-spot districts to focus solely on investigating and prosecuting opioid-related health care fraud.  I have sent these prosecutors to where they are especially needed, including Eastern Kentucky.

These talented and experienced prosecutors work with the DEA, FBI, the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as our local partners to target and prosecute doctors, pharmacies, and medical providers who are exploiting the drug epidemic to line their pockets.  They’ve already begun issuing indictments.

To build on that effort, I announced the Prescription Interdiction and Litigation – or PIL – Task Force—last month.

The PIL Task Force will focus in particular on targeting opioid manufacturers and distributors who have contributed to this epidemic.

The Task Force will examine potential legislative and regulatory changes in existing laws, as well as consider assisting with ongoing state and local government lawsuits against opioid manufacturers.

We are already supporting—with a statement of interest—ongoing litigation against opioid manufacturers and distributors by the state of Ohio and more than 40 counties in Kentucky.

Just two weeks ago, I ordered the DEA to re-evaluate its limits on opioid production.  That review is moving rapidly. 

And I think it is important because better information will mean smarter limits on opioid production. 

That way, we can have the drugs we genuinely need, but not so many that people are in danger.

Smarter limits on opioid production, creating the data analytics program and the PIL Task Force will all help us shut off the flow of prescription drugs to our streets.

But you don’t have to go to a street corner to buy drugs.  With a few clicks of a button, you can go online and have them shipped right to your door.

A lot of criminals think that they’re safe online because they’re anonymous. 

They’re in for a rude awakening.

In January I announced a new resource to investigate and stop online drug sales: it’s called J-CODE, or the Joint Criminal Opioid Darknet Enforcement team.

By bringing together DEA, our Safe Streets Task Forces, our drug trafficking task forces, Health Care Fraud Special Agents, and other assets, the FBI will more than double its investment in the fight against online drug trafficking – dedicating dozens more Special Agents, Intelligence Analysts, and professional staff to focus solely on opioid sales online.

The J-CODE team will coordinate across the FBI’s offices all around the world to target and disrupt the sale of synthetic opioids and other drugs on the darknet.

That will help us arrest more of the criminals selling these deadly substances online, shut down the marketplaces that drug dealers use – and ultimately it will help us reduce addiction and overdoses across the nation.

President Trump believes that our country can break the vicious cycle of drug abuse, addiction, and overdose that has devastated countless American families, and so do I.  The Trump Administration will continue to use every tool at our disposal to end this drug crisis. 

I believe that our new resources and our recommitment to existing programs will pay dividends for our families, our communities, and our country.

But I am well aware that we cannot fight this fight alone.

At the Department of Justice, we understand and appreciate the fact that 85 percent of the law enforcement officers in this country serve at the state and local levels.  We want to be a force-multiplier for you. 

We can reach defendants you can’t reach—over state lines, over the border, and overseas.

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 March 15, 2018