Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you, John [Anderson], for that kind introduction. I have known John since we were law students together at Fordham University many years ago. John, thank you for service as U.S. Attorney here in beautiful New Mexico. It’s a privilege to serve alongside you at the Department of Justice.
I also want to recognize Kurt Alme, our U.S. Attorney in Montana. Kurt serves as the Vice Chair for our Native American Issues Subcommittee of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee. Kurt, thank you for your commitment to making Indian Country safer.
Thanks to all of you here with us today: members of the FBI, DEA, DHS, and ICE, and our partners at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And of course, I want to say a special thanks to all of our state, local, and Tribal partners who are in attendance.
The Department of Justice plays a unique role in the government-to-government relationship between the United States and Tribal Nations. The breadth of our work in Indian country covers a massive legal landscape and touches almost every function of our organization—from civil litigation and awarding grants, to public safety and prosecutions, and everything in between.
Of course, one of the Department’s most important duties is enforcing the law. Our U.S. Attorney’s offices and law enforcement components, such as the FBI and the DEA, are responsible for investigations, prosecutions, and victim services in Indian country.
Our prosecutors have primary criminal jurisdiction over about 70 million acres of Indian lands. This spans across about 200 Indian country territories. We also have concurrent jurisdiction over about 50 more.
It is well established that American Indian and Alaska Native people suffer from some of the highest rates of victimization in our nation, from victims of domestic violence to sexual assault, to those devastated by the drug trade and the opioid epidemic. That’s why I’m very pleased to announce today that the Department of Justice is making available up to $110 million in a program set aside to provide assistance to crime victims in tribal communities. The FY 2018 Tribal Victim Services Set-Aside Program can be used to provide a wide range of victims’ services for victims of human trafficking, crime victimization related to the opioid and drug crisis, child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, homicide, and assault, among other crimes.
As all of you know well, the drug trade poses one of the greatest threats to public safety, and a unique challenge to our work in law enforcement.
Drug overdose deaths in this country are at an all-time high. Approximately 64,000 Americans lost their lives to drug overdoses in 2016 – the highest drug death toll and the most rapid increase in the death toll on record. And by all indications, the total death toll in 2017 will be even higher.
Native American communities have been hit particularly hard by the drug epidemic. According to the CDC, American Indian and Alaska Native people saw a fivefold increase in overdose deaths between 1999 and 2015—an increase that was higher than any other group. In fact, American Indians and Alaska Natives had the highest drug overdose death rate in 2015.
Much like the rest of this country, this increase is due in large part to opioids. From 2015 to 2016, the rate of opioid overdose deaths among American Indian and Alaska Natives increased by 15 percent—making it the second highest rate of all groups.
According to a report released earlier this year, the overdose death rate for all drugs here in Rio Arriba County was 86 deaths per 100,000 people—nearly 6 times the national average. In 2016, Rio Arriba County had the 10th highest drug overdose death rate of all counties nationwide.
These numbers are staggering. But they don’t tell the full story. Tribes and other communities across the country are suffering. Parents are losing children to addiction; and children are losing their parents. And sadly, this epidemic reaches even the youngest and most vulnerable. Every 25 minutes, a baby is born in the United States suffering from opioid withdrawal.
The situation is serious, but we can do something about it. Together, we can turn the tide.
President Trump declared a public health emergency and made fighting the drug epidemic a top priority of his Administration. And Attorney General Sessions has heeded this call.
Under the Attorney General’s leadership, the Department will do everything we can to reduce the number of drug overdose deaths—and we will succeed with your help.
Our national strategy to combat the drug epidemic centers on three pillars—prevention, enforcement, and treatment.
Each of our districts faces a unique drug threat. That’s why each of our U.S. Attorneys has designated an opioid coordinator to implement a strategy to address the threat in that particular region.
The drug crisis is a complex problem, and one that demands thoughtful solutions. We are committed to tackling all aspects of this crisis, from the over-prescription and unlawful diversion of pharmaceutical drugs, to the trafficking of traditional street drugs, to the proliferation of illicit drug sales online.
American Indian and Alaska Native communities suffer from the second highest rate of overdose deaths from prescription opioids among all population groups. Our efforts at the Department of Justice will reduce the supply of prescription opioids available for misuse.
In August, Attorney General Sessions created the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit, which employs data analytics to find outliers and the tell-tale signs of crime – such as which doctor is prescribing the most drugs, what pharmacy is dispensing the most drugs, and whose patients are dying from overdoses.
The Attorney General also assigned a dozen experienced prosecutors in districts experiencing large numbers of opioid overdose deaths. Those prosecutors focus on investigating and prosecuting opioid-related health care fraud.
Our experienced prosecutors work with federal agencies and local offices like yours to prosecute doctors, pharmacies, and medical providers who exploit the drug epidemic to line their pockets. They have already started presenting indictments.
Back in February, the Attorney General announced the Prescription Interdiction & Litigation Task Force. The PIL task force will use all available tools, including civil and criminal enforcement actions, to hold accountable prescription drug manufacturers, distributors, pharmacies, pain management clinics, drug testing facilities, and individual physicians for unlawful actions.
Our focus extends beyond prescription drugs. Opioids like heroin and fentanyl—as well as other types of drugs like methamphetamine—are also killing people at record levels.
Strong partnerships with federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement are critical to our ability to disrupt and dismantle the drug trafficking networks responsible for smuggling these dangerous drugs across the southwest border and selling them in our communities.
Our U.S. Attorneys recognize the importance of strong partnerships in combatting the drug crisis. Here in the District of New Mexico, for example, the U.S. Attorney’s Office joined forces with the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center to launch the Heroin and Opioid Prevention and Education, or “HOPE” Initiative. The HOPE Initiative brings together law enforcement with other community stakeholders with the goals of protecting the community from the dangers associated with heroin and opioids and reducing overdose deaths.
This initiative has yielded positive results. This past March, a HOPE initiative prosecution resulted in the sentencing of two leaders of a Taos County heroin and methamphetamine trafficking organization to substantial terms of imprisonment.
To rid our communities of dangerous drugs and reduce overdoses, we must keep pace with emerging drug threats. Illicit drug trafficking has become more globalized and more deadly.
Fentanyl is a controlled synthetic drug often produced in China that is up to 50 times more potent than heroin. Analogues of fentanyl, such as carfentanil can be 100 times more potent than fentanyl and 10,000 times more potent than morphine.
Fentanyl and fentanyl anlogues are often manufactured in Chinese laboratories, shipped to the United States or Mexico, mixed with heroin or other substances, and then sold to addicts who oftentimes are unaware of what they are ingesting.
We are working with the Chinese government to stem the flow of illegal fentanyl and fentanyl analogues. China agreed to schedule a variety of fentanyl class substances last year.
In the meantime, we will continue to work our drug cases up the chain to the sources of supply. Last October, we announced two indictments of Chinese defendants who were using the Internet to sell illicit fentanyl and fentanyl analogues to drug traffickers and to individual customers in the United States. And just a couple months ago, we brought charges against 10 more people, including four Chinese nationals, for selling large quantities of fentanyl to Americans.
And in January, the Department announced a new strategy to investigate and stop online drug markets, the Joint Criminal Opioid Darknet Enforcement team.
This team will help us arrest more criminals who sell deadly substances online, and shut down the marketplaces that the drug dealers use. Ultimately it will help us reduce drug addiction and overdoses.
The federal government alone cannot end this crisis. I’m proud to discuss some of the Department of Justice’s efforts. And of course, our federal partners at the Department of Interior also have a huge role to play. Secretary Zinke is focused on tackling this issue within Native American communities.
But we are counting on a lot of help. Some of that help is funded by the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs. We extend grants to states that fund life-saving naloxone, connect people to treatment services, and establish drug courts and Veterans Treatment Courts as alternatives to incarceration.
That includes grants to our Tribal partners. In 2017, the Justice Department awarded nearly $59 million in Tribal grants to strengthen drug court programs to combat opioids and methamphetamine.
I have no doubt that together we can stop this drug epidemic and make our communities safer for all.
I wish you all the best of luck for a successful conference, and I look forward to working with you on solving our nation’s drug crisis.