Thank you for that introduction, Attorney General Schimel, and more importantly, thank you for your leadership on this issue. Your work has had direct results—opioid prescriptions in Wisconsin dropped 10 percent from 2015 to 2016 thanks to your efforts. We need to see that nationally.
And I want to thank each of you for being here. Our current drug epidemic is the deadliest in American history, and it is one of the most serious and lethal issues facing this country.
This means your work has never been more important. And the partnerships and alliances that have been built over your nearly 25 year history will be vital to this mission and to the thousands of children you save every year.
Just yesterday, I was with key members of the President’s cabinet at the White House on this very issue. President Trump has made responding to this crisis a national priority; earlier this month he ordered his administration to use all appropriate authority to respond to this crisis. The Department of Justice has already heeded that call and will continue to do so.
Perhaps most tragically, this epidemic is taking a heavy toll on the most innocent and vulnerable: our children. And yet, in the national conversation about drug abuse, these children too often get forgotten.
Let’s stop and think about these children for a minute: crying in their cribs and neglected while their parent or caregiver gets high, toddlers mistakenly ingesting lethal, illicit narcotics, and school age children living in fear of a clandestine meth lab explosion or carrying their parent’s lie about what is being grown or sold from their apartment or house. We cannot accept this.
As you know better than I, some of these children have been hurt or even killed by exposure to drugs. In Milwaukee, for example, a four-year old boy died of a suspected drug overdose in March.
According to local officials, six other children under the age of five were killed by apparent drug overdoses in Milwaukee over roughly the previous year and a half. Under the age of five! I am a grandparent to children just that age and it is conscience shocking to think of innocent children dying because of their parents’ drug use.
Other children have had to watch helplessly as a parent or guardian slips away, caught in the grip of addiction. Drugs are destroying and bankrupting families in Wisconsin and across the country.
I heard a story recently about a three-year old girl from Ohio who found her grandmother—who was babysitting her at the time—unconscious from an alleged overdose.
The girl called the police, and they used the overdose reversal drug naloxone and saved her grandmother’s life. Police say that when they arrived at this particular house, they found needles all over the floor, and that the girl asked, “will you hold me?” Just imagine her terror and loneliness. It’s heartbreaking. To stop and think of this scene is almost too much.
Sadly, I could go on. There are many other stories like these. In 2015, more than 52,000 Americans—including more than 800 Wisconsinites—lost their lives to drug overdoses. 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 that death toll in American history. This is not a sustainable trend nor an acceptable America.
Those 60,000 people leave behind children, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren. Those empty chairs at Thanksgiving and empty holes in loved-ones hearts will remain.
This epidemic is filling up our cemeteries, our emergency rooms, and equally tragic—our foster homes.
Over the last three years, the number of American children in foster care has increased by eight percent, and there is no doubt that the drug epidemic is a major driving factor in this increase.
Nationwide, nearly one in three kids who have been removed from their home and put into foster care were removed because of a parent’s substance abuse.
And that doesn't even count the thousands of kids who are not formally removed from home, but instead have gone to live with other family members because of a home environment that is unsafe due to drugs.
I’m sure that some of your other speakers will be focusing on another tragic aspect of this crisis: the increasing prevalence of neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS—babies born dependent on drugs because of a parent’s addiction, but I would be remiss if I did not mention it now as well.
The national NAS rate has gone up five-fold since 2000, and every 25 minutes, a baby is born in America dependent on drugs. In Wisconsin, the rate of NAS has increased 26-fold since 2001. I refuse to accept this as the new reality. We are better than this and must protect those unborn babies from this poison.
The link between NAS and the opioid crisis is clear.
One study in 2007—before this crisis got even worse—reported that about one in five pregnant women on Medicaid filled a prescription for an opioid while pregnant. Prescribing and using opioids on a large scale has led to an increased risk of NAS.
I’m sure that some of the medical professionals in the room today have observed the tragic consequences first hand.
Doctors and nurses across America have seen babies with NAS shake with the tremors of drug withdrawal. They’ve heard their inconsolable cries of pain.
To compound this opioid problem, traffickers crossing the Southern Border have flooded our communities with drugs, causing steep decreases the street price for most illicit narcotics.
But while the price of drugs has gone down, the price we have paid as a country has only gone up. If you ask the economists, they’ll tell you that prescription opioid addiction costs our economy some $78 billion a year and other illicit drugs cost us $193 billion a year. But what is even more devastating is the cost paid in destroyed families, broken lives, and death rates the likes of which we have never seen.
To confront a crisis of this scale, we must have a comprehensive antidote to the problem. I believe the solution contains three pillars: prevention, enforcement, and treatment.
Treatment is important. In some cases, treatment can help break the cycle of addiction and crime and get people back on their feet and out of the clutches of the drugs.
But treatment cannot be our only policy. Treatment often comes too late. By the time many people receive treatment, they, their families, and communities have already suffered dramatically. The individual struggle to overcome addiction can be a long process – and it can fail. And, sadly, it often does fail.
That’s why the first goal is to stop use and addiction before they start. We also need prevention.
In recent years, some of the government officials, media and Hollywood elites in this country have sent mixed messages and accommodating messages about the harmfulness of drugs. This is unacceptable: we must not capitulate intellectually or morally to drug use. We must create and foster a culture that is hostile to drug abuse. Accommodation to a rattlesnake in your bed is a path to disaster.
But, we know we can change. It has worked in the past for drugs, but also for cigarettes and seatbelts.
A campaign was mounted; it took time, and it was effective. We need to send such a clear message now.
The Department of Justice has been working diligently to improve our prevention efforts. We are doing that by raising awareness, utilizing drug take-back programs, and through the DEA’s 360 Strategy program.
Prevention is what we at the Department do every day by doing our jobs—because law enforcement is prevention. Robust enforcement of our laws helps keep drugs out of our country, decreases their availability, drives up their price, and reduces their purity. Law enforcement officers save lives every day in this country.
This Department of Justice is also determined to save lives through enforcement, and that is why we have recently taken a number of steps to fight this epidemic.
First, the Department announced last month 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. More than 50 of these defendants were doctors charged with opioid-related crimes.
That means this was also the largest opioid-related fraud takedown in American history. DEA tells us that 80 percent of heroin addictions in America started with prescription drug addiction. If we’re going to stop the heroin crisis, then we must stop the abuse of prescription drugs, too.
Just a week after those 400 arrests, we announced the seizure and take down of AlphaBay— the largest dark net marketplace takedown in history. This site hosted some 220,000 drug sale listings and was responsible for countless synthetic opioid overdoses, including the tragic death of a 13 year old in Utah.
And finally, earlier this month, I announced that I was allocating new resources to focus on fighting this drug epidemic.
The first new resource is a data analytics program at the Department called the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit. I created this unit to focus specifically on opioid-related health care fraud using data analysis. This sort of data analytics team can help us find the tell-tale signs of crime by finding statistical outliers.
They can tell us which physicians are writing opioid prescriptions at a rate that far exceeds their peers; how many of a doctor's patients died within 60 days of an opioid prescription; the average age of the patients receiving these prescriptions; pharmacies that are dispensing disproportionately large amounts of opioids; and regional hot spots for opioid issues.
Fraudsters might lie, but the numbers don’t. We are putting every would-be fraudster in America on notice that they cannot hide. We will find them and we will bring them to justice.
I have also assigned 12 experienced prosecutors to focus solely on investigating and prosecuting opioid-related health care fraud cases in a dozen “hot-spot” locations around the country where they are especially needed.
These prosecutors, working with the FBI, DEA, the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as our state and local partners, will help us target and prosecute doctors, pharmacies, and medical providers who are exploiting this epidemic to line their pockets.
And finally, under President Trump’s strong leadership, the federal government is finally getting serious about securing our borders.
Illegal entries are down 50 percent already. A Southern border that is more secure and more lawful will make it harder to bring deadly drugs into this country. That would protect children from the effects of this epidemic.
I believe that these new resources and new efforts will make a difference, bring more criminals to justice, and ultimately save lives.
And I’m convinced this is a winnable war.
Through prevention, enforcement, and treatment, we can make this country safer for every child. It’s going to require all of us working together, and it’s going to take a lot of hard work.
That is the work all of you are here to do and it has never been more important or more urgent.
Thank you all of being here, for fighting this fight on the front lines in the face of so much heartbreak, and for working every day to safeguard our children.
Thank you and God bless you.