By ERIC EYRE and
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The chief law enforcement officer of the United States pushed for a tough-on-drugs criminal justice approach to combat the growing opioid epidemic at a speech in Charleston on Thursday, running counter to recent efforts in fighting the region’s addiction problem.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke at a Drug Enforcement Administration heroin and opioid response event at the University of Charleston, where he said the keys to curbing the rising tide of opioid abuse will be an emphasis on abuse prevention and criminal enforcement.
Parts of Sessions’ speech sounded strikingly similar to the “Just Say No” anti-drug advertising campaign of the 1980s. First lady Nancy Reagan championed the slogan during her husband’s presidency.
“Once again, we’re sending a clear message: Illegal drugs are dangerous and deadly,” Sessions said. “Say ‘No.’ It’s not right to do it. It’s wrong to do it.”
“They would say, which is pretty much true, ‘We can’t arrest our way out of this problem,’ and that is true, we can’t,” he said. “But it is a big political part of it, and people should not diminish the power and effectiveness of good law enforcement. But prevention, I truly believe, is the greatest part of our challenge and, over time, prevention will be the most effective.”
Although he advocated for drug abuse prevention, the speech’s context raised questions on the sentiment. Sessions spoke at an event co-hosted by the DEA and the Community Anti-Drug Coalition of America, the latter of which is funded by the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
A memo leaked last week from a White House budget proposal expected to come this month revealed that President Donald Trump’s administration has planned to cut the drug policy office’s funding by nearly 95 percent, from $388 million to $24 million.
The office oversees several governmental bodies that combat the drug epidemic from preventive, law enforcement and rehabilitative angles.
Although Sessions was originally scheduled to be available for questions from reporters after the speech, his staff issued a news release late Wednesday stating that he would not be available for questioning. Sessions canceled news media availability after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, who was heading an investigation into possible collusion with the Trump campaign and the Russian government to influence the 2016 presidential election. Sessions recused himself from the investigation after it surfaced that he had met with Russian diplomats while serving as a surrogate for the Trump campaign.
Along with prevention, Sessions said ramping up criminal justice efforts to thwart drug flow into and around the country will be key. He said that although people might try to suggest otherwise, drugs and crime go hand in hand and law enforcement will need additional resources in the battle, as well.
“We are not going to allow gangs and international cartels to dominate our streets.” Sessions said. “It’s our streets.”
He said he is working on plans to enhance border security and more aggressively prosecute criminals bringing drugs over the border.
Sessions also said the heroin problem has led to a steep increase in violent crime.
“The opioid and heroin epidemic is attributed to the recent surge we see on violent crime in our country, there’s just no doubt about it,” he said. “We are indeed seeing a big increase in violent crime.”
According to an annual report by the FBI, preliminary data from 2016 shows violent crime increased by 5 percent during the year, with an 11 percent increase in the murder rate. However, the rate of violent crime fell 50 percent between 1993 and 2015, according to that same source.
Sessions said treatment is part of the solution to the opioid problem, but he seemed to put it behind prevention and a law enforcement crackdown.
“While treatment programs are crucial, they address the drug abuse crisis from the back end, after people have gotten addicted and communities and lives are devastated,” Sessions said.
Sessions also put doctors on notice Thursday, saying pain pill prescribing has gotten out of hand.
“I think we’re prescribing too much opioids today, and we’re going to have to confront that,” Sessions said. “Our doctors, our dentists, our drug companies, our pharmacies — all have got to be on board in this. The day that we can allow abused prescriptions to addict people … leading them into heroin has got to end, and will end.”
Sessions cited the federal prosecution of Dr. Michael Kostenko, who ran a pain clinic in Raleigh County. Kostenko agreed to plead guilty to federal charges last month, just two days after his criminal trial had started. Kostenko faces up to 20 years in prison.
“He admitted [that], in just one day, he was paid over $20,000 in cash to write 370 oxycodone prescriptions totalling over 22,000 pills … even though he didn’t see a single patient that day, he wrote those prescriptions,” Sessions said.
The attorney general said prosecutors will target all levels of the prescription drug supply chain, including distributors that ship painkillers from manufacturers to pharmacies.
“We’re going to keep that up,” he said.
Sessions described the battle against opioid abuse as a “huge undertaking.”
“We have too much complacency about drugs,” Sessions said. “Too much talking about recreational drugs. We want to reverse this trend. We are not going to allow this abuse.”
Also Thursday, law enforcement officials said 140 people have overdosed on drugs in Charleston so far this year, and 20 of those have died. Heroin and fentanyl have fueled most of those deaths.
“We’re in the middle of the worst heroin epidemic we’ve ever encountered, and we know prescription pills has led us down that path,” said Chad Napier, coordinator for the Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program in West Virginia and Virginia. “Eighty percent of all heroin users come from prescription pill abuse.”
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