Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you Mary for those welcoming remarks, and for the work that you and our entire team did to organize this important event.
Seated here on the stage with the Attorney General are Acting Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio and Assistant Attorney General for Legal Policy Beth Williams. We are also joined in the audience by United States Attorneys and other Department leaders, as well as public officials and private citizens who are helping to stem the tide of opioid abuse.
This is the first national opioid summit held at the Department of Justice. We are honored to have many distinguished guests. Our first panel includes men and women who have lost children to the opioid crisis and who are turning their grief into action. Among the panelists are retired U.S. Navy Admiral Sandy Winnefeld, who served as our nation’s ninth Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his wife Mary. We thank Admiral Winnefeld and his wife for their service, and we thank all panelists for their work on ending the opioid crisis.
In August 1989, on the eve of the 200th Anniversary of the Office of the Attorney General, then Attorney General Dick Thornburgh addressed the House of Delegates of the American Bar Association. He was one year into the job, and the nation was in the throes of a terrible drug epidemic. Through the 1980s and early 1990s, crack cocaine ravaged our cities, spreading violence, death, and despair.
The crack cocaine epidemic led to skyrocketing murder rates in many U.S. cities, including here in Washington, D.C. In 1991, Washington’s murder count peaked at 482, a rate of 81 homicides per 100,000 residents, and the city became known as the nation’s “murder capital.”
Attorney General Thornburgh reflected on how the Department had changed over the two centuries since the appointment of the first Attorney General, Edmund Randolph. Thornburgh concluded that the Justice Department’s fundamental responsibility remained the same: “responding to the just expectations of the American people as articulated by the President and by their elected representatives in Congress.” These expectations, Thornburgh declared, “impose heavy responsibilities upon those of us charged with meeting them.” And in 1989, he observed, Americans expected “a maximum effort against … drug trafficking and drug abuse ….”
Nearly three decades later, we once again confront a surge of devastation caused by drug abuse, this one years in the making. In the late 1990s, companies began marketing prescription pain medication without full disclosure of the risks. And doctors prescribed the drugs without full understanding of the consequences.
Some patients became addicted to opioids as a result of misuse of pharmaceutical opioid medications. As addiction spread, the supply of heroin exploded, providing a cheaper and more potent alternative to pain pills.
Over the past few years, Chinese manufacturers began to produce large volumes of deadly synthetic opioid drugs for shipment to the United States. The new chemicals are many times more potent than heroin. They contributed to an unprecedented surge in drug overdose deaths.
We now face the deadliest drug epidemic in our nation’s history. There were more than 72,000 deaths last year, and two-thirds of them involved opioids. In addition to the deaths, many times that number of people suffer the agony of addiction, and the harm spreads to family members, friends and neighbors. The human suffering wrought by this epidemic is beyond measure.
President Donald Trump made clear from the start of his administration that fighting the opioid epidemic is a priority. The President declared a Public Health Emergency last year, and he directed us to make it a top priority.
Under the leadership of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Justice Department is doing just that. The Attorney General reversed the previous Administration’s policy of mandating lower sentences, and restored the traditional principle that prosecutors generally should charge defendants with the most serious, readily provable offense, and disclose to the sentencing court all facts relevant to sentencing. The Attorney General also instructed federal agents and prosecutors to increase the time and effort devoted to prosecuting drug dealers.
As a result, the number of defendants charged with federal drug crimes started to increase.
We now use every tool — including both criminal and civil enforcement powers — to stop illegal drug dealers and cut off the supply of pills from corrupt doctors and pharmacists.
Across the country, federal prosecutors and agents are working closely with state, local and tribal law enforcement partners to stem the flow of dangerous drugs into our communities.
We know that our efforts will make a difference. Drug enforcement is not just about chasing criminals and punishing guilty defendants. It is about crime prevention. Criminal cases are important because they have a deterrent effect. They send a message about the serious consequences of illegal drug dealing.
Working with our state, local and tribal law enforcement partners here at home, and with foreign governments, we are making progress.
Preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control suggests that the work of this Administration, including the work of the Department, is starting to stem the tide of rising overdose deaths. But we still have work to do.
In August 1989, Attorney General Thornburgh noted that the Department could not declare victory even though every conventional statistical measure of law enforcement progress — investigations, arrests, convictions, prison terms, forfeitures — had reached record levels. “The expectations of the American people have not been met in this important area,” he said.
Attorney General Thornburgh recognized that law enforcement alone could not end the drug epidemic. He predicted that the “war on drugs,” as it was called then, would not be won in the courtroom, but in classrooms, workplaces, communities, houses of worship, and families.
Overcoming an epidemic of this magnitude will require engagement by all sectors of society. That is why the Trump Administration’s opioid strategy incorporates prevention, enforcement and treatment efforts.
Our exceptional law enforcement officials understand that public health and public safety go hand in hand. If we work together, we will effectively respond to Americans’ just expectations and save lives.
Now it is my distinct honor to introduce a strong advocate for law and justice. Jeff Sessions devoted most of his career to public service. He served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, United States Attorney, state Attorney General, and United States Senator. He is not here to carry on business as usual. He is here to deliver on President Trump’s commitment to make America safe. We at the Department are fortunate for his leadership and for the example that he sets every day. So please welcome a great patriot, the 84th Attorney General of the United States, Jeff Sessions.