(CNSNews.com) – Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday outlined the DOJ’s efforts to address the growing drug opioid crisis in the nation, including the hiring of 400 more DEA task force officers and 300 federal prosecutors – “the largest surge in prosecutors in decades.”
During a speech at the National Narcotics Officers’ Association’s Coalition Drug Enforcement Forum, Sessions said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated the death toll from drug overdoses last year at approximately 72,000, which he said is the “highest drug death toll in American history by far.”
“It is widely estimated that life expectancy has declined in the United States in recent years—largely because of drug abuse,” he said.
Sessions said opioids like prescription painkillers, heroin, and synthetic drugs like fentanyl are to blame for the dramatic increase in overdose deaths, and in 2016 alone, 42,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses.
“We also have a serious and growing cocaine problem in this country. It’s purer, cheaper, and more available. Cocaine-related deaths have nearly tripled the United States since 2010, and our DEA agents in the West tell us that methamphetamine is their number one problem. The situation is daunting and the challenge is great, but we have a unique opportunity to reverse these trends,” he said.
Sessions noted that in the past drug enforcement agents did not get the support they needed from politicians who tried to “tie” their hands.
“I know that sometimes in the past, you haven’t had the support that you deserve. You’ve had politicians that tie your hands, who fail to understand the challenges you face, and who are in denial about the nature and extent of the problem, but not this administration,” he said.
“In the face of an unprecedented crisis we have to take unprecedented action, and with President Donald Trump, that is exactly what we are doing. President Trump has a comprehensive plan to end what he has declared to be ‘a national public health emergency.’ The three legs of our plan include prevention, enforcement and treatment,” the attorney general said.
Trump has improved prevention efforts, Sessions said, “by launching a national awareness campaign about the dangers of opioid abuse” and has set the goal of reducing opioid prescriptions by one-third in three years. Furthermore, the president ordered Sessions to seek the death penalty for certain drug dealers – “something no president had done before him.”
“When we enforce our drug laws, we prevent addiction from spreading. The work that you do helps keep drugs out of our country, reduces their availability, drives up their price, and reduces their purity and addictiveness. That saves lives. Experts tell us supply creates its own demand,” Sessions said.
The attorney general said the Obama administration directed federal prosecutors to omit the full amount of drugs someone is charged with in order to avoid triggering mandatory minimum sentencing for drug cases.
“Under the previous administration, in drug cases, the Department of Justice directed federal prosecutors not to include in charging documents the full amount of drugs being dealt if it would trigger certain mandatory minimum sentences. Prosecutors were required to leave out facts in order to achieve sentences lighter than required by law. That is an improper and dangerous policy. It weakens enforcement and reduces cooperation,” Sessions said.
As a result, drug prosecutions and the average length of sentences for drug traffickers decreased.
“After they put this directive into place, drug prosecutions went down by 17 percent, and the average sentence length for a convicted federal drug trafficking offender decreased 15 percent. Even if everything were going well, that still wouldn’t make sense, but we were suffering from the worst drug crisis in our history,” the attorney general said.
“And so, when I became Attorney General, I restored the charging policy of this department to the traditional one that was in place when I was in trying cases and through much of the Obama Administration, and in the districts where drug deaths are the highest, we are now vigorously prosecuting synthetic opioid trafficking cases, even when the amount is small. It’s called Operation Synthetic Opioid Surge—or S.O.S.,” he said.
Sessions said it only takes a tiny amount of fentanyl – “a pinch of salt” - to kill someone.
“We are in a desperate fight to curtail the availability and spread of this killer drug. Synthetic opioids are so strong that there is no such thing as a small case. Three milligrams of fentanyl can be fatal. That’s equivalent to a pinch of salt. Depending on the purity, you could fit more than 1,000 fatal doses of fentanyl in a teaspoon,” he said.
The attorney general said his department targeted synthetic opioid suppliers in one Florida county and reduced the number of overdose calls from an average of 11 calls a day to one a day.
“I want to be clear about this: we are not focusing on users, but on those supplying them with deadly drugs. In Manatee County, Florida, in partnership with the sheriff, we tried this strategy, and it worked. This past January, they had half the number of overdose deaths as the previous January. The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office went from responding to 11 overdose calls a day to an average of one a day. Those are promising results,” he said.
“We want to replicate those results in the places that have been hardest hit. And so I have also sent 10 more prosecutors to help implement this strategy in ten districts where drug deaths are especially high. And that is in addition to the 12 prosecutors I sent to prosecute opioid fraud in drug ‘hot spot districts.’ To help them do that, I have begun a new data analytics program at the Department called the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit to use data to find opioid-related health care fraud,” Sessions said.
“This team follows the numbers—like which doctors are writing opioid prescriptions at a rate that far exceeds their peers; how many of a doctor's patients have died within 60 days of an opioid prescription; pharmacies that are dispensing disproportionately large amounts of opioids; and regional hot spots for opioid issues,” he said.
Sessions also sent more than 300 new federal prosecutors to U.S. attorneys offices nationwide in what is considered “the largest surge in prosecutors in decades.” The prosecutors are expected to prioritize cases involving drugs, gangs, and related violence. In addition, the DOJ hired more than 400 DEA task force officers in 2018 alone, which Sessions considers to be “a record increase.”
“Since January 2017, we have charged more than 200 doctors and another 220 other medical personnel for opioid-related crimes. Just 16 of those doctors prescribed more than 20.3 million pills illegally. Last summer we set a record for the largest health care fraud enforcement action in American history. This summer, we broke that record,” the attorney general said.
“We coordinated the efforts of more than 1,000 state and federal law enforcement agents to charge more than 600 defendants—including 76 doctors—with more than $2 billion in fraud. This was the most doctors, the most medical personnel, the most fraud, and the most opioid-related fraud defendants we’ve ever charged in a single enforcement action,” he said.
The DOJ is also cracking down on opioid drug sales online.
“Last July, the Department announced the seizure of the largest dark net marketplace in history – AlphaBay. 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,” Sessions said.
“In January we began J-CODE, a new team at the FBI that focuses specifically on the threat of online opioid sales. They have already begun carrying out nationwide enforcement actions, arresting dozens of people across the country. We need to work together on this – on controlled deliveries – so it becomes clear that internet distribution is no safe path,” he said.
“Last month I announced charges against a married couple who we believe were once the most prolific synthetic opioid, fentanyl, traffickers on the darknet in North America. We had worked with our partners in Canada to help them indict a man we believe was the third most prolific darknet synthetic opioid dealer in North America,” the attorney general said.
“The vast majority of the fentanyl in this country was made in China. And under President Donald Trump we became the first administration to prosecute Chinese fentanyl traffickers,” he added. “Last October, we announced the first two indictments against Chinese nationals for trafficking synthetic drugs in the United States. Last month I announced our third case—a 43-count indictment against a drug trafficking organization based in Shanghai.
“We are interdicting drugs coming into this country at record levels. In 2017, Customs and Border Protection seized 63 percent more cocaine at our borders as they seized just two years before. Meanwhile, the Coast Guard seized record numbers of drugs: about half a million pounds total, worth about $6.1 billion. The Coast Guard also helped us arrest more than 600 alleged drug traffickers,” Sessions said.
In the first three months of this year, the Drug Enforcement Administration seized “more than 200 pounds of suspected fentanyl in cases from Detroit to Boston” – enough, “depending on its purity,” to kill tens of millions of people,” the attorney general said.
“In 2017, we tripled the number of fentanyl prosecutions at the federal level. We are back in the effort at historic levels. The DEA’s National Prescription Audit shows that in the first quarter of 2018, opioid prescriptions went down by nearly 12 percent compared to the first quarter of 2017, when President Trump took office, and that's in addition to a seven percent decline in 2017,” Sessions said.
“And while 2017 saw more overdose deaths than 2016, data for the last months of the year show that the increases may have slowed,” he said.
The crackdown on opioid drug sales has also led to a reduction in violent crime, the attorney general said.
“As surely as night follows day—violence, addiction and death follow drug activity. When the drug epidemic was accelerating—so was violent crime and so was murder. That was no coincidence,” he said. “In 2015, the homicide rate increased by 12 percent nationally, and it increased again by eight percent in 2016. Violent crime, rape, robbery, and assault increased during that time, too.
“But preliminary data show that both the violent crime rate and the homicide rate are beginning to head back down. Public data from 88 large cities suggest that violent crime went down in the first quarter of 2018 compared to 2017. Violent crime went down 6.8 percent, and murder is going down in 2018 by 5.5 percent,” Sessions said.