Opinion: The Sessions assault on the opioid epidemic
In less than 18 months on the job, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made significant progress in reducing crime and improving morale among federal, state and local law enforcement.
The attorney general faced enormous challenges from his first day in office. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2016, more than 64,000 Americans died from drug overdoses.
This is roughly equal to the total number of U.S. troops killed during the Vietnam War. Of these fatal overdose deaths in 2016, approximately 42,000, or two-thirds, were caused by opiates, including heroin, and synthetic opioids, mainly OxyContin and fentanyl.
Correctly recognizing that these were unacceptable national trends, the new attorney general took immediate steps to equip the prosecutors and agents of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), including the 94 U.S. Attorney’s Offices.
He quickly rescinded the so-called “Holder Memorandum,” the governing policy of the previous attorney general, which, among other things, had limited federal prosecutors’ ability to seek lengthy mandatory-minimum prison sentences for drug dealers and violent offenders.
In addition to demoralizing many dedicated career federal prosecutors and agents engaged in narcotics and gang work, the Holder Memorandum and its restrictions on charging serious offenses and mandatory minimums had taken away one of the most effective tools to encourage offenders to cooperate and, in turn, help dismantle major drug-trafficking organizations and violent gangs.
Under the new “Sessions Memorandum,” federal prosecutors are empowered to bring the most serious charges warranted by the crime.
The attorney general also announced new prosecution priorities, shifting DOJ’s focus to (1) combatting the opioid epidemic; (2) reducing violent crime; (3) aggressively addressing illegal immigration; and (4) protecting national security.
Literally putting his money where his mouth is, the attorney general then successfully secured $72 million in additional funding for 311 new assistant U.S. attorney positions across the country. This is the largest and most significant DOJ hiring initiative in a generation.
The attorney general also revamped and relaunched Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN), a gang and gun violence-reduction program focused on collaboration between federal, state and local law enforcement. Although data for 2017 will not be available until later this year, it is likely we will see a reduction in violent crime for the first time in several years.
As the newly appointed U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia, I embrace the attorney general’s new priorities and his back-to-basics approach to fighting crime. The opioid epidemic is raging across our district.
As the Roanoke Times recently reported, the Roanoke Valley suffered more than 80 fatal opioid overdose deaths in 2017. The greater-Winchester area saw 40 fatal opioid overdoses. According to CDC data, in 2016, Martinsville led the nation in the number of opiate prescriptions per person.
Violent crime also increased dramatically in our district between 2014 and 2016. The homicide rate in Roanoke increased 500 percent, and Danville saw a 400 percent increase. These increases, and the increases in drug trafficking and other violent crimes, is partially attributable to organized gang activity in these communities.
We are taking a number of steps to address the opioid epidemic and violent crime in the Western District. On the opioid front, my office is committed to investigating and prosecuting health-care professionals who push these dangerous drugs for profit.
We are also working with our state and local partners to investigate overdose deaths as potential homicides, and hold dealers accountable under severe mandatory minimum periods of incarceration. Our drug prosecutors are committed to interdicting and disrupting the supply of these deadly drugs, including fentanyl and heroin, into our district.
In 2017, a federally-funded drug task force based in the Western District seized over two kilograms of fentanyl, or the equivalent of approximately a million doses of heroin. This was likely the largest fentanyl seizure in Virginia last year.
With respect to violent crime, the U.S. Attorney’s Office is collaborating with our state and local partners to identify the drivers of violent crime and target them for prosecution. Working with our FBI-led violent crime task forces, we are focusing on gang activity in our urban areas and hope to reverse the cycle of violence that has plagued these communities for far too long.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office is also prosecuting more cases involving the illegal possession and use of firearms and sending offenders to federal prison.
As U.S. attorney, I spend a significant portion of my time traveling around our large district to meet with local sheriffs, chiefs of police, state law-enforcement officials and commonwealth attorneys. Without exception, the message I have heard from my local counterparts is that they are grateful for and excited to have an attorney general who understands the scourge of the opioid epidemic and gun-related violence, and who is fully committed to addressing these problems.
We have a long and difficult path ahead, but, together — and with the unwavering support of an attorney general who is committed to the rule of law — we are well-positioned to make an impact.
• Thomas T. Cullen is U.S. Attorney, Western District of Virginia.