Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
Senator Ernst, Ranking Member Feinstein, and Members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to discuss the Department of Justice's work to combat the opioid epidemic. I am the department's Director of Opioid Enforcement and Prevention efforts. My position in the Deputy Attorney General’s office was created for the sole purpose of ensuring the department is properly formulating and implementing resources to the fullest extent, with the express goal of combatting this opioid crisis.
I also have 13 years of experience as a drug prosecutor, working as an Assistant United States Attorney and also as a Deputy Section Chief in the Criminal Division. I know firsthand that the department is not simply paying lip service when its leadership expresses its commitment to stem the tide of this epidemic. It is responding aggressively and intentionally, with every tool it has at its disposal.
One such tool is focused on the department’s efforts to dismantle Darknet websites. These websites allow some of the most prolific drug suppliers to sell fentanyl on their marketplaces. Dismantling them is a priority for the department, which is why in 2018, the FBI established J-CODE, the Joint Criminal Opioid and Darknet Enforcement team. Since J-CODE’s launch, there have been two successful large-scale takedowns that have taken dozens of Darknet accounts off the web and hundreds of kilos of drugs off the streets.
The department has also been diligently working to prosecute Mexican cartels who traffic fentanyl and fentanyl analogues into the United States. The Mexican cartels are not only producing their own fentanyl, but mixing fentanyl in with other drugs such as methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine, which is contributing to the staggering number of overdose deaths throughout the country. The department is using all the tools at its disposal to combat these cartels, most notably, winning the conviction of Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, who was sentenced to life plus 30 years in July of this year.
Another noteworthy initiative is Operation Synthetic Opioid Surge, or S.O.S, that focuses on illicit opioids in ten districts that have seen some of the highest overdose death rates in the country. The prosecutors in those districts work towards prosecuting all readily provable cases involving synthetic opioids. In the first year of the program alone, over 300 cases were charged in these ten districts.
Additionally, the department has created the Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force, or ARPO, a joint law enforcement effort that pools the resources and expertise of multiple agencies to identify, investigate, and prosecute health care fraud schemes in the Appalachian region – one of the most hard-hit by this epidemic.
Since its October 2018 establishment, the ARPO Strike Force has charged more than 70 defendants who are collectively responsible for distributing more than 40 million pills. These medical professionals were charged with drug trafficking offenses with stiff penalties for their diversion of opioids.
The ARPO Strike Force has also worked hand-in-hand with HHS to ensure that when there is a takedown of these medical professionals, patients are not left out in the cold. Rather, they are met by a team of public health officials who can refer them to legitimate medical providers or addiction recovery services.
The department recognizes that we cannot simply prosecute our way out of this crisis and have been using our resources to help prevent opioid abuse before it takes place. This occurs through school and community outreach, partnerships with Native American tribes, public service announcements, and training for medical professionals.
Additionally, the department has a robust grant network established exclusively for opioid abuse and overdose prevention. This includes grants to help facilitate youth treatment, prevention, and victim services, and help state and local law enforcement better investigate heroin and prescription opioid distribution.
Finally, I want to remind you of what I spoke with you about in June – the importance of a legislative solution for class-wide scheduling of fentanyl-like substances. While the nation has seen usage of prescription opioids decrease, the number of overdose deaths in the United States has reached record levels. One of the chief causes is the proliferation of fentanyl and its analogues.
As you know, in February 2018, the DEA responded to this proliferation of fentanyl analogues by scheduling the entire class of fentanyl-like substances on a temporary emergency basis. In response to the class-wide scheduling order, we’ve seen a significant decrease in encounters of fentanyl-like substances and a reduced production of these substances by traffickers.
Class-wide scheduling is working. But the temporary emergency scheduling expires in just 51 days. As a prosecutor, I can tell you that legislation to permanently schedule fentanyl-like substances is an important and necessary step to continue countering this epidemic. We are running out of time and if a solution is not found, prosecutors will undoubtedly be hindered, and drug traffickers will undoubtedly be helped. We cannot afford to move in the wrong direction while battling this crisis.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify today and we look forward to continuing to work with Congress to find solutions necessary to address the threats posed by the opioid epidemic.