Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen Delivers Opening Remarks at the Department of Justice's 2020 National Opioid Summit


Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Good morning.  Thank you for coming from all over the country to attend this important summit. That so many of you have taken the time to be here is a testament to the gravity of this topic.  I am honored to be here speaking to you, as we discuss the Department of Justice’s efforts to address our nation’s opioid crisis.                                                                

Since 2000, more than 400,000 people have lost their lives due to opioids.  This staggering number of deaths has pushed drug overdoses to the top of the list of leading cause of deaths for Americans under the age of 50 years old, and has caused a decline of 2.5 months from U.S. life expectancy.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 67,300 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2018 alone, and more than two-thirds of those overdoses were caused by heroin, fentanyl, and prescription opioids.

Thanks to the leadership of President Trump, in March of 2018, the administration released the Initiative to Stop Opioid Abuse and Reduce Drug Supply and Demand and the number of fatalities declined last year for the first time in more than 25 years. However, we still have a lot of work to do.

Our Department has no higher priority than keeping the American people safe, so addressing this issue is at the top of our agenda. The Attorney General reminds us of it often and it is one of those issues that is always on our radar.

This is truly a Department-wide effort with everyone from the DEA to the FBI and our U.S. Attorneys taking part.

I am grateful for the work you all do every day in this area; you are all on the front lines working to defeat what seems like an endless stream of drug traffickers and some disgraceful doctors who intentionally overprescribe for profit.  

We would not be able to fight this fight without our U.S. Attorneys or our opioid coordinators in every district. Your work with national, state, and local law enforcement is invaluable. Your tireless devotion is one of the many reasons the Administration has made progress combating this issue.

This overall effort has been successful in implementing the Department’s opioid initiatives and we are seeing tremendous success.  One such initiative is focused on dismantling Darknet websites that allow some of the most prolific drug suppliers to peddle their poison.  In 2018, the FBI established the Joint Criminal Opioid and Darknet Enforcement team, also known as J-CODE.  Since J-CODE’s launch, there have been two successful large-scale busts that have taken hundreds of kilograms of drugs off the streets and dozens of Darknet accounts offline.  These Darknet investigations will be further discussed later on during this summit.

Another noteworthy Department initiative is Operation Synthetic Opioid Surge, or S.O.S., which focuses on illicit opioids in ten districts with some of the highest overdose death rates in the country.  Our goal in those districts is prosecuting all readily-provable cases involving synthetic opioids and to identify wholesale distribution methods.  In the first year of the program alone, over 300 cases were charged in just these ten districts, with many focusing on cases where the dealers were prosecuted for selling fentanyl that resulted in an overdose death.  We have seen many of the S.O.S. districts charging “death resulting” cases where a drug dealer is held accountable for a fatal overdose. Indeed, there will be a presentation about this later on in the summit as well.

In addition, the Department has created the Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force or “ARPO,” which is a joint law enforcement effort that pools the resources and expertise of multiple agencies to identify, investigate, and prosecute health care fraud schemes in the Appalachian region — one of the areas hardest hit by the opioid epidemic.  Since its establishment in October 2018, ARPO has charged more than 70 defendants across over a dozen districts, who are collectively responsible for distributing more than 40 million pills.  These defendants were often medical professionals who were charged with Title 21 offenses that carry stiff penalties. 

As you will hear about during this Summit, the ARPO Strike Force has also worked in partnership with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to ensure that, when there is a takedown of dishonest medical professionals, patients are met by a team of public health officials who can refer them to legitimate medical providers or addiction recovery services.

To stop the illegal flow of prescription opioids, DOJ’s Consumer Protection Branch has dusted off a statutory provision that had been virtually unused as the crisis worsened over the last decade, and sought civil injunctions under the Controlled Substances Act to stop the unlawful prescribing and dispensing of controlled substances.  For example, when DEA data showed that two pharmacies in a small Tennessee town were dispensing enough opioids to supply a mid-sized city, we successfully enjoined the two pharmacies, their majority owner, and three pharmacists from continuing to dispense controlled substances. The complaint also sought monetary penalties and was followed by criminal action against one of the pharmacists.  Unless the wrongdoers get the message and stop this activity, you can look for DOJ to bring many similar actions this year.

Due in part to the tremendous efforts by the Department of Justice and our colleagues at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), FBI, Department of Homeland Security, United States Postal Inspection Service, and HHS, among others, we are starting to see key results.  For the second year in a row, there has been a decline in overdose deaths in the United States.  Though the decline is modest,  it is remarkable, considering that we had historically seen, since 1990, a steady increase in overdose deaths.  Reversing that deadly trend is a very important mark of progress.

In addition, DEA has also reduced by nearly 50 percent the aggregate production quota for the seven most frequently diverted controlled substance opioids since 2016.  The number of prescriptions for those seven opioids has decreased by more than 33 percent since 2017.  This is a welcome relief after a steady increase in the overall national opioid prescribing rate starting in 2006. 

As another mark of progress, DEA seizures of fentanyl have increased since 2016 by over 700 percent.  The Department’s prosecution of opioid-related offenses has reached record levels with more than 11,100 opioid prosecutions last fiscal year alone.  And as you will hear today, there will be no letup of our efforts to combat this plague.

Our successes, however, do not stop with these critical efforts all of you have made in implementing the Department’s enforcement initiatives. Indeed, perhaps one of this Administration’s most imperative steps was the President’s recent signing of the Temporary Reauthorization and Study of the Emergency Scheduling of Fentanyl Analogues Act, which provides a 15-month extension of the DEA’s temporary scheduling order of all fentanyl-like substances on a class-wide basis.

I don’t need to tell you all how important this legislation is.  After all, an important part of what made it happen is that many of you engaged in education and outreach efforts and wrote op-eds, issued statements, and gave interviews explaining the need for, not only of a temporary extension, but of permanent legislation banning fentanyl analogues.

The Department’s goal is of course to enforce our drug laws and to keep these poisons off of our streets. But ultimately, we are striving to keep more of our fellow Americans alive. We can’t do that if the deadliest drugs fall outside of our laws.

While not every district has experienced the full wrath of fentanyl and its analogues, far too many districts have been inundated with these drugs, some of which can be up to 10,000 times more potent than morphine.  I want to personally thank all of you who every day contribute to the Department’s greater causes, regardless of whether your district is experiencing the same challenges as your neighbors. That support is critical to the Department’s achievements, like getting the 15-month extension banning fentanyl analogues. And I have no doubt that we will see another united effort when the time comes to again address legislation calling for a permanent ban.

As federal prosecutors, you are the best in your field. Your number of successful prosecutions speak for themselves. As if that wasn’t enough, many of you are tackling this crisis out of the courtroom, too. You work to better inform the public about the dangers of opioids. You speak on panels, to school children, and to vulnerable populations about the dangers of opioids. Your Law Enforcement Coordinators are working regularly with your local and state partners to ensure that your federal resources are doing the most they can to help the populations you serve.

Your victim witness staff work with individuals who are the most impacted by this epidemic. You are all part of a community that is making a difference in peoples’ lives each day.  You help to protect the public, to stop the promoters of poison, and to preserve lives that might be lost.  So, as we get this summit underway today, while we know that there is much more to be done, I want to thank you, and the entire Department of Justice thanks you, for your unwavering devotion to doing all that we can to end this terrible opioids affliction.  

Our work continues.   Thanks to all.

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The year 2020 marks the 150th anniversary of the Department of Justice.  Learn more about the history of our agency at www.Justice.gov/Celebrating150Years.

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