Remarks by U.S. Attorney Damon P. Martinez at Second Bernalillo County Opioid Accountability Summit
Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
Thank you, Dr. Bill Wiese, for your kind introduction. I want to start by thanking Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins and her team for their leadership in confronting the crisis posed by opioid abuse not only in Bernalillo County but throughout New Mexico. I also want to thank the Coordinating Committee for the Bernalillo County Opioid Accountability Initiative, including Dr. Wiese, Dr. Harris Silver and Marsha McMurray-Avila, for all that they have been doing every day for the past two years to forge safer and healthier communities in New Mexico.
Thank you also for including the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the UNM Health Sciences Center in the Bernalillo County Opioid Accountability Initiative, and for giving Chancellor Paul Roth and me the opportunity to participate in today’s Summit for the purpose of discussing how our organizations can contribute to and build on the good work that is already being done here in Bernalillo County.
Let me start by telling you that Chancellor Roth and I recently agreed to have our organizations collaborate on the New Mexico Heroin and Opioid Prevention and Education Initiative, which we call the HOPE Initiative. Although the HOPE Initiative will gradually be implemented state-wide, we decided to begin implementation here in Bernalillo County because we knew we would be able to capitalize on the infrastructure provided by the County’s Initiative.
The County’s Opioid Abuse Accountability Initiative already has brought together many experts, advocates, leaders and other critical stakeholders from our public health, research and education, law enforcement, and substance use disorder prevention and treatment communities who are dedicated to confronting heroin and prescription drug abuse. Your commitment to improving and saving lives is inspiring, and the guidance and expertise you bring comes at a time when much is at stake. You know the challenges we face are daunting. You also know that it makes sense to focus on the most dangerous types of drugs. And right now, few substances are more lethal than prescription opioids and heroin.
Between 2006 and 2010, across America, heroin-related deaths increased by 45 percent. During that same period, here in New Mexico, the increase in heroin-related deaths paralleled the national increase but at a rate that was two times greater. These shocking statistics – which do not include death resulting from prescription opioid abuse – are clear indications that we are up against an urgent public safety and public health crisis. This is a crisis that affects Americans in every state, in every region, and from every background and walk of life. Accordingly, the overriding goal of the HOPE Initiative is to reduce the number of opioid-related deaths in New Mexico.
The HOPE Initiative is an integral part of my office’s implementation of the federal Smart on Crime Initiative announced by the U.S. Attorney General in August 2013. This nationwide initiative seeks to achieve better outcomes throughout the federal criminal justice system, especially with regard to nonviolent, drug-related crimes. It recognizes that we cannot simply arrest our way out of the drug problem. While effective law enforcement will always play a critical role in protecting our cities and neighborhoods from drug-related crime, reducing crime requires a broader, multi-dimensional approach. Science clearly demonstrates that addiction is a progressive disease of the brain that can be prevented and treated and from which people can recover. With this in mind, we must treat substance abuse and the disease of addiction as a public health issue, not just a criminal justice issue.
Accordingly, under the Smart on Crime Initiative, the Justice Department is focusing federal resources on investigations and prosecutions that serve a significant federal interest while strengthening diversion programs and community service initiatives that provide alternatives to incarceration for some individuals and offer treatment and rehabilitation to those who need it. It strives to improve and reinforce reentry programs and initiatives so that formerly incarcerated individuals can return to their communities better prepared to become full and productive members of society. It recognizes that education, prevention, and treatment, along with vigorous law enforcement, must all be significant components of any comprehensive solution. It also calls on U.S. Attorneys to modify their charging policies to ensure that stringent mandatory minimum sentences are reserved for the most serious criminals and that those who commit low-level, non-violent crimes will face sentences appropriate to their individual conduct.
When I was confirmed as U.S. Attorney in May of last year, I made implementation of the Attorney General’s Smart on Crime Initiative one of my top priorities. The HOPE Initiative is a key part of the implementation of the Smart on Crime Initiative here in New Mexico. The HOPE Initiative is comprised of five components: (1) prevention and education; (2) treatment; (3) law enforcement; (4) reentry; and (5) strategic planning. The U.S. Attorney’s Office has long participated in prevention and education programs, and it will expand on those efforts as part of this Initiative. It also fully supports efforts to expand on available treatment options. Today I will touch on what the U.S. Attorney’s Office is doing with regard to the HOPE Initiative’s reentry and law enforcement components, and Chancellor Roth will discuss the prevention, education and treatment components of the Initiative.
Under our Project Safe Neighborhood program that focuses on the Urban Indian community in Bernalillo County, we are working with the Pueblo of Isleta to establish one of the country’s first reentry programs in Indian Country. This program is a pilot project for Pueblo members who are returning to Isleta Pueblo after being incarcerated in federal, state and juvenile facilities. The program seeks to ensure that reentering Pueblo members have access to education, housing and employment in addition to the substance abuse treatment and counseling they will need so they can successfully return to their community. These components are also critical to avoid relapse to addictive behaviors, and to reduce the likelihood of recidivism to the criminal justice system.
The Isleta Pueblo reentry program is our first step into the reentry arena. We intend to expand our reentry efforts to other Pueblos and Tribes as well as support the State’s reentry programs. To facilitate this expansion, in April of this year, we will partner with DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance to host one of three Indian Country reentry training programs that will be offered to tribal communities throughout the country. We will encourage New Mexico’s tribal leaders to participate in the training as preparation for establishing reentry programs in their communities.
The law enforcement component of the HOPE Initiative makes clear that the U.S. Attorney’s Office will never waver in its commitment to act aggressively to keep our streets safe and our children free from drug addiction and abuse. It makes clear that we will never stop being tough on crime and the choices that breed it. But it also recognizes that we must be smart, efficient, and effective as we strive to disrupt and diminish the scourge of addiction – along with the underlying conditions that trap too many individuals in a vicious cycle of drugs, criminality, and incarceration.
We will focus our law enforcement efforts to combat the opioid abuse problem in New Mexico against the backdrop of the broader goals of our Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force program, known as the OCDETF program. Those goals include identifying, disrupting and dismantling the most significant criminal organizations responsible for the manufacture and distribution of heroin and illegally trafficked opioids. They also include facilitating the coordination of law enforcement efforts against heroin and opioid traffickers, and dismantling the financial infrastructure of these criminal organizations. To achieve those goals, we will continue to target cartels and other drug trafficking organizations that have significantly expanded their production of heroin and its distribution in the United States as well as the heroin traffickers who have expanded into areas with existing prescription drug abuse problems. Focus on the cartels and drug trafficking organizations is imperative because the amount of heroin seized along the southwest border increased by more than 320% between 2008 and 2013.
Our situation, however, is not simply a problem of drugs crossing our borders or another country’s bad actors harming us. It is OUR problem. Practitioners who illegally dispense prescriptions painkillers, those who operate pill mills for prescription painkillers, and pharmacists who fill fraudulent prescriptions while knowing their true purpose, are drug dealers no different from street-level heroin dealers. And so we will also investigate and prosecute prescription drug diversion schemes, pill mills, rogue clinics and pharmacies, and prescription drug rings.
In conjunction with our “worst of the worst” initiative, we will continue to work with our local District Attorneys to target heroin and opioid traffickers with prior convictions for federal prosecution with the goal of removing them from our communities for as long as possible. This year, Albuquerque has experienced a sharp increase in the number of pharmacies robbed at gunpoint for opioid painkillers. These offenders will also be targeted under the HOPE Initiative. We will continue to work with corrections officials to investigate and prosecute those who interfere with and obstruct rehabilitation and treatment efforts within custodial settings by introducing drugs into our prisons and jails.
The law enforcement community’s commitment to the HOPE Initiative and the County’s Opioid Abuse Accountability Initiative is apparent by their participation in this Summit. Will members of the law enforcement community please stand up? Please join me in a round of applause to thank these officers for putting themselves on the front lines for us and our families. The agencies represented by these fine men and women are committed to thoroughly investigating drug-fueled crime and violence, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office will vigorously prosecute those cases.
As I mentioned earlier, the crisis we face is not just a crime problem. It is a community public health problem. Whenever people look at this problem, they come to the same conclusions: (1) there is no simple answer; (2) we cannot stand by and do nothing; (3) we cannot arrest and prosecute our way out of it; and (4) the stigma associated with the disease of addiction helps perpetuate the problem. This crisis demands that we join together to employ a comprehensive strategy that addresses every aspect, every phase, and every cause of this crisis.
As elected and appointed officials, law enforcement officers, medical providers, and prevention and treatment experts, each of us stands on the front lines of the effort to protect our communities from the devastating impact of illegal drug use. Together, through collaboration and cooperation among stakeholders at every level, we can make significant strides to build a better, brighter, and more secure future for ourselves and our children.
Before turning the podium over to Chancellor Roth, I want to mention a couple of related matters that will be of interest to you. First, last year the U.S. Attorney General announced that federal law enforcement agencies, including the DEA, FBI, ATF and U.S. Marshals Service, are to review their policies and procedures to determine whether their agents should be equipped and trained to recognize and respond to opioid overdose, including the use of Narcan. This announcement paves the way for federal officers to begin carrying and dispensing this lifesaving drug. We cannot overstate the importance of Narcan to our core mission of saving lives: from 2008 to 2014, the number of documented overdose reversals with Narcan tripled from 250 to 800. A Narcan program established by the New Mexico Department of Health can be fairly credited for saving those lives. Soon federal officers will join that lifesaving effort.
Second, last month, the Justice Department announced a new National Heroin Initiative under its OCDETF program. The primary purpose of the National Heroin Initiative is to provide funding to support local and regional initiatives like the HOPE Initiative in developing coordinated law enforcement plans to disrupt the flow of heroin into communities that have been profoundly impacted by heroin trafficking and overdoses. We will move expeditiously to secure some of these resources and put them to good use in New Mexico.
Finally, the Department of Justice and other federal agencies periodically offer grants that fund community-based coalitions that organize to prevent and treat substance abuse. My office will let the Coordinating Committee of the County’s Initiative know about available grant opportunities and will be available to provide technical assistance with grant applications.
In closing, I remind you of the obvious – progress will not come easily, and positive change will not occur as quickly as we might like. But as long as we keep our commitments to one another; as long as we keep seeking new ways to work together; as long as we keep striving to build on the promising work that so many of you are leading, there is good reason for confidence in where these efforts will take us from here. I am proud to count you as partners in the considerable work that lies ahead and I thank you for all that you’re doing – today and every day – to combat drug abuse and to protect our young people. I look forward to next year’s Summit when we will discuss what we have accomplished together in 2015 through the County’s Initiative and the HOPE Initiative, and continue to develop proactive strategies for the work that must be done.