Good morning, everyone. I want to thank my friend and former colleague, Senator Shelley Moore Capito, for the introduction, and for welcoming me to West Virginia.
I’m grateful to our U.S. Attorneys here, Carol Casto and Betsy Jividen, for their hospitality and their leadership. I also want to thank DEA Assistant Administrator Lou Milione and Special Agent in Charge Karl Colder for being here today.
Finally, my thanks to all the law enforcement leaders, healthcare providers, educators and concerned citizens who are here for this important summit.
We’re here to discuss a deadly serious topic, the unprecedented wave of opioid and prescription drug abuse in America.
This crisis is hurting our whole country. It has hit this state especially hard, with West Virginia having the highest rate of overdose deaths in the country.
People in Washington, D.C., use the word “crisis” to describe all kinds of problems. But this epidemic of opioid and prescription drug abuse is a true crisis. It is ravaging our communities, bringing crime and violence to our streets, and destroying the lives of too many Americans.
To combat this wave of drug abuse, we have to recognize how huge this problem is. And we must use all three tools that are essential to fighting drug abuse: law enforcement, treatment and prevention.
That’s what I want to talk about with you today.
Let’s start by looking at the scope of the problem. In 2015, more than 52,000 Americans died from a drug overdose. That means our country is losing the equivalent of a major league baseball stadium full of people every year to overdoses. That is simply unacceptable.
Nearly two-thirds of those deaths were from opioids — that includes heroin as well as prescription drugs such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine and morphine.
Every day, 91 Americans die from an opioid overdose. And each year, more Americans are dying from drug overdoses than from car crashes.
What’s terrifying is that these numbers may well understate the current problem, due to the recent rise of the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is vastly more potent than heroin. Drug traffickers are now mixing fentanyl with other drugs, resulting in a truly deadly concoction.
In just one year, largely as a result of fentanyl, overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids rose an astonishing 73 percent. Let me repeat that, 73 percent more overdose deaths.
But this plague not only brings death, but a whole parade of horribles.
The number of American babies born with a drug withdrawal symptom has quadrupled over the past 15 years. Here in West Virginia, the situation is so bad that in some hospitals, one out of every 10 babies is born dependent on opioids.
These totally innocent infants scream inconsolably and suffer from tremors, vomiting and seizures. Even when the heroic efforts of doctors and nurses successfully shepherd these babies through withdrawal, they remain at risk for developmental and health problems throughout the rest of their lives. We have to do better, and we will.
This wave of opioid and heroin abuse also represents a crisis for law enforcement.
We know drugs and crime go hand-in-hand.
Drug trafficking is an inherently violent business. If you want to collect a drug debt, you can’t, and don’t, file a lawsuit in court. You collect it by the barrel of a gun.
The opioid and heroin epidemic is a contributor to the recent surge of violent crime in America.
Transnational drug cartels are working with street gangs to traffic heroin that is both cheaper and stronger than ever. As the market for this heroin expands, these gangs fight for territory and new customers — and innocent people get caught in the crossfire.
Drug abusers miss work, and when they do work, they don’t work well. According to one estimate, American employers are losing $10 billion dollars a year from absenteeism and lost productivity due to opioid abuse.
Any way you look at it, this drug abuse epidemic is a multi-faced and massive crisis.
It demands an all-hands-on-deck response — from government, law enforcement, health care providers, teachers, community leaders and parents. All of us must do our part to fight the scourge of drugs.
As I mentioned before, we have three essential tools in this fight: enforcement, treatment and prevention. At the Department of Justice, our principal concern is law enforcement. Strong enforcement is crucial to effective drug abuse prevention and treatment.
Many people say, “We can’t arrest our way out of this problem.” But no one denies we need good prevention and treatment programs. What we must recognize is that strong law enforcement efforts are also essential.
Criminal enforcement is crucial to stopping the violent transnational cartels that smuggle drugs across our borders, and the thugs and gangs who bring this poison into our communities.
So what are we doing on the enforcement side of the equation?
First, under President Trump’s leadership, our nation is finally getting serious about securing our borders. The Department of Justice is doing its part. I have directed our federal prosecutors to make criminal immigration enforcement a priority, and to appoint a Border Security Coordinator in each of their offices. We are going after the transnational cartels and gangs like Sinaloa and MS-13 that enrich themselves by smuggling their poison and members across our porous southern border.
Second, our federal enforcement agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI, are doing all they can to address the heroin and opioid crisis.
The DEA has developed what they call their 360 Strategy, and deployed it to six pilot cities, including here in Charleston. One part of the 360 Strategy is coordinated law enforcement actions against drug cartels and traffickers.
DEA’s field divisions work closely with task force partners in federal, state, and local law enforcement to identify, target and prosecute the biggest drug traffickers.
We are also targeting links between the cartels and drug trafficking networks across our country, including violent street gangs.
Another part of DEA’s 360 Strategy is diversion control. A lot of drug abuse happens because legitimate controlled substances are diverted from their lawful purposes.
So DEA is working with drug manufacturers, wholesalers, pharmacies and practitioners to prevent the non-medical abuse of prescription drugs.
We are also targeting and prosecuting dishonest medical providers who violate their oaths by running “pill mills” or otherwise diverting prescription drugs from legitimate uses. The DEA’s Tactical Diversion Squads, including one here in Charleston, do outstanding work on this front.
For example, last month Assistant U.S. Attorneys from this District tried a case against a doctor in Beckley on a 22-count indictment. Just two days into the trial, the doctor pleaded guilty to illegally distributing oxycodone.
He admitted that on just one day, he was paid over $20,000 dollars in cash to write 370 oxycodone prescriptions totaling over 22,000 pills — even though he didn’t see a single patient that day. He now faces up to 20 years in prison.
The goal of all our enforcement efforts is to take back our neighborhoods from drug traffickers and criminals, and give these communities breathing room.
That allows us to deploy the other tools we have to fight drug abuse: treatment and prevention.
Much good work is being done on this front. Last year when I was in the Senate, I supported the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. This bill enhanced prevention and treatment programs, and expanded the availability to first responders of the drug naloxone, which can reverse the effects of drug overdoses and save lives.
Many of you here today give generously of your time and talents to support drug treatment efforts. You are providing help and hope to people caught in the destructive trap of addiction, and our whole nation is grateful to you.
Still, while treatment programs are crucial, they address the drug abuse crisis on the back end — after people have gotten addicted, and communities and lives are devastated. That is why prevention is critical.
The best thing we can do is to keep people from ever abusing drugs in the first place.
Our nation must once again send a clear message: illegal drug use is dangerous and deadly. We know for a fact it destroys lives — just look around you.
Education does work. We won’t end this epidemic in a week, or a month, or a year. This will be a huge undertaking, both here in West Virginia and across our great country. We must use all the tools we have: criminal enforcement, treatment and prevention programs.
And if we work together, we can and will win this fight against drug abuse.
Thank you all for being part of this fight, and for everything you do to make this state and our nation a better place.