Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you, Bruce, for that kind introduction, and thank you for your more than 30 years of service to the Department of Justice.
Bruce, I also want to thank you for your willingness to share your own experience to raise awareness about the dangers of drugs. I can’t imagine how difficult that must be. From one parent to another—thank you for your leadership and courage discussing the dangers of illicit narcotics – and the impact it has had on your family.
On behalf of the President, I want to thank everyone here for the critical work you do to protect the American people from drugs and crime. We are in the midst of a daily opioid crisis and now a deadly epidemic. Make no mistake, however, combatting this poison is a top priority for President Trump and his administration, and you can be sure that we are taking action to address it.
In fact, President Trump recently declared this week both “Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week” and “National Gang Violence Prevention Week,” in order to bring even greater attention and scrutiny to the devastating effects that drug abuse and gang violence have on Americans and their families.
The President’s first declaration makes clear to all those who are suffering addiction, seeking treatment, or who are in recovery: we stand with them, we are praying for them, and we are working every single day to help them. And the second puts all gang members and other organized thugs on notice: we are coming for you. We will find you, we will hunt you down, and we will bring you to justice.
Let’s be clear about what we are up against – we must face the stark reality.
Today, we are facing the deadliest drug crisis in American history. In 2015, more than 52,000 Americans lost their lives to drug overdoses. That’s more than the population of Harrisburg. For Americans under the age of 50, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death.
And unfortunately, 2015 was not a blip. The numbers for 2016 look even worse. Based on preliminary data, approximately 64,000 Americans lost their lives to drug overdoses last year.
That would be the highest drug death toll and the fastest increase in that death toll in American history. And every day this crisis grows.
Sadly, Pennsylvania is not immune to this problem. In 2015, Pennsylvania was sixth in the nation in fatal overdoses and nearly 80 percent of Pennsylvania counties had fatal overdose rates above the national average. Last year, following a 37 percent increase, more than 4,000 Pennsylvanians lost their lives to drug overdoses—13 a day.
And, not surprisingly, we’ve seen a surge in opioid prescribing. This was one of the major reasons that this drug epidemic began in the first place. Consider this: in the 20 years from 1991 to 2011, opioid prescriptions nearly tripled in the United States. That is too high. We have got to reduce prescription in the United States.
In my home state of Alabama, we have had more painkiller prescriptions than Alabamians for over a decade. And for the last 5 years, we have had the highest per capita rate of prescriptions to people of any state in the country.
No doubt as a result, we have now seen one of the highest increases in overdose deaths in the country—a jump of more than 20 percent between 2013 and 2015.
These trends are shocking and the numbers tell us a lot– but they aren’t just numbers. They represent moms and dads, brothers and sisters, neighbors and friends.
They represent unique, irreplaceable people, and fellow Americans.
They represent the 26-year-old pregnant mother who overdosed in Charleston, accidentally killing both herself and her unborn child. They represent the couple who were found dead in their Kernville home a week after they had overdosed on heroin.
Their five-month-old daughter was found with them—dead from starvation and dehydration.
I recently had the opportunity to address the National Alliance for Drug Endangered Children, it was during this event that I was able to view this crisis through the eyes of a child—just imagine for a moment you are a helpless toddler who cries for their mother to wake up and she never does, or the poor infant that is wailing in the NIC-U due to opioid withdrawal—you just entered this world and are already suffering and for sins you did not commit.
We must make progress for those currently afflicted and for those who have yet to be caught in its grips.
Drug dealers across America are profiting off of this crisis. They are making the drugs stronger – and more deadly – by lacing heroin with fentanyl—a drug 30 to 50 times more powerful than heroin—and carfentanyl, a synthetic opioid 100 times more potent than that. As a result, drugs on the streets today are more powerful, more addictive, and more dangerous than ever.
They’re so powerful that they put your lives at risk too, because exposure to even trace amounts of fentanyl can be fatal.
A police officer in Eastern Ohio suffered an overdose after brushing what he thought was white powder from his uniform after a routine traffic stop. And another officer in New Jersey was rushed to the emergency room after a puff of fentanyl came up while removing the air from a plastic bag.
As a nation, we talk a lot about growing our economy and shrinking our government budgets. Drug abuse does the exact opposite: it shrinks our economy and it grows our government budgets.
It is estimated that prescription opioid addiction costs our economy some $78 billion a year and that illicit drugs cost us a total of about $193 billion a year.
Drug abuse reduces the productivity of our workers, eliminates many otherwise qualified individuals from our work force due to addiction and criminal records, and puts a strain on health care programs like Medicaid. It is filling up our emergency rooms, our foster homes, and our cemeteries.
The point is that our country is served by having more Americans healthy, drug free, and ready to work. Every addicted American reduces the productivity of America.
Despite the record death toll and the dangers on the streets, some in our culture and in government say that drug abuse is no big deal.
That is wrong.
To confront a crisis of this scale, we must have a comprehensive antidote to the problem.
I believe the solution today is still based on the three principles of 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.
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.
The struggle to overcome addiction can be a long process – and it can fail. Tragically, it often does fail.
The best long-term solution is prevention. The best action is not to start. Just say no.
And prevention is what we at the Department do every day—because law enforcement is prevention. Enforcing our laws helps keep drugs out of our country, drive up their price, and reduce their availability, purity, and addictiveness.
And in this effort, we’ve already had some successes—including in this office. In April, a man from New York was sentenced to 29 years in prison for distributing heroin that killed a 26-year old man in New York City. Prosecutors in this office worked the case with DEA, and police in York County. This is an outstanding example of law enforcement cooperation, and I commend you for that. There are a lot of other examples I could point to, as well.
The Department of Justice is proud of what you have accomplished. And we are taking new steps to support you in your work.
Two months ago, 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.
More than 100 of these defendants have been charged with opioid-related crimes, including many doctors. This was also the largest opioid-related fraud takedown in American history.
Just a week later, we announced the seizure and take down of AlphaBay— the largest dark net marketplace takedown in history. 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 Utah.
And to help fight the overprescribing of opioid painkillers, I announced last month that we will allocate new resources to find and prosecute the fraudsters who help flood our streets with drugs.
The first new resource is a data analytics program at the Department called the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit. This team will help us find the tell-tale signs of opioid-related health care fraud by identifying statistical outliers.
Fraudsters might lie, but the numbers don’t.
The second is that I’ve 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 – places where they are especially needed. And one of those will be in Western Pennsylvania.
And, today, I am announcing that we will be awarding nearly $20 million in federal grants to help law enforcement and public health agencies address prescription drug and opioid abuse. This is an urgent problem and we are making it a top priority.
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.
But in order to end this crisis, we must work together. Eighty-five percent of all law enforcement officers serve at the state and local level, and your work is essential to our success. Strengthening partnerships between law enforcement officers at all levels is a central theme of my tenure at the DOJ, and I hope you will help me do that.
Each of you has a difficult job, but it is a job worth doing, and a job that your communities are depending upon. And you can know this: you have our thanks, and we have your back.
Thank you and God bless you.