U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Friday welcomed President Donald Trump's declaration of the opioid epidemic as a public health emergency, saying he agreed with Trump that the war on addiction was “winnable.”
Trump on Thursday directed the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to declare a 90-day public health emergency, but he stopped short of declaring the epidemic a national emergency or asking Congress for additional funds.
Trump’s declaration nonetheless gives states more flexibility to use federal funds, although it will not provide funds specifically for the opioid crisis.
The White House said the administration had allocated more than $1 billion for the opioid epidemic, including $800 million for prevention, treatment, first responders and prescription drug monitoring programs.
'Make a difference'
Sessions, speaking to law enforcement officials at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, called Trump’s announcement a “rare step” that “will make a difference by getting more help to those who need it.”
"In confronting the worst drug crisis in our history, we need to use every lawful tool we have," Sessions said. "But if we do, there is hope. I agree with the president — I'm convinced that this is a winnable war."
In August, the Department of Justice formed the Opioid Abuse and Detection Unit, a pilot program that places prosecutors in so-called opioid "hot spots" and uses data to investigate and prosecute opioid-related health care fraud.
Sessions said the program had begun to produce results.
On Thursday, he announced the first case brought by the program, a 14-count indictment of a Pennsylvania doctor for illegally prescribing and dispensing opioid pills and morphine — “often without an examination.”
On Wednesday, the Justice Department announced that the operator of a now-defunct pain management practice had pleaded guilty of opioid-related fraud in the amount of $750,000.
The doctor admitted prescribing a highly addictive version of the synthetic opioid drug fentanyl in exchange for $188,000 in kickbacks from drug company Insys Therapeutics Inc.
The company’s founder and majority owner, John Kapoor, was arrested Thursday and charged with conspiracy to commit bribery and fraud.
“Overprescribing is largely how we got into this crisis,” Sessions said. But he added that the proliferation of illegal fentanyl, which is 50 times as potent as heroin, had made the epidemic "much deadlier."
Last year, more than 20,000 people died of overdoses involving fentanyl, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overall, deaths from drug overdoses topped 64,000 for the first time, making overdoses the leading cause of death for Americans under age 50.
Fentanyl is available as a Schedule II prescription drug in the United States. But drug seizure data suggest that a large number of the increase in opioid-related deaths is related to illicit fentanyl, often sold on the internet.
In recent years, China has emerged as the No. 1 source of illicit fentanyl in the United States. Earlier this month, federal prosecutors charged two Chinese nationals with illegally distributing large quantities of fentanyl in the United States.
In July, authorities shut down the largest illegal drug marketplace operating on the so-called dark web. The site, AlphaBay, had more than 200,000 drug listings, including fentanyl.
Law enforcement officials vowed to continue to go after illegal fentanyl suppliers.
“As a first step in response to the president’s announcement, the Cyber Crimes Center ... will serve as ground zero in our efforts to attack the fentanyl issue where it originates — the dark web,” said Derek Benner, acting executive associate director of Homeland Security Investigations at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.