Attorney General Sessions Calls Opioid Epidemic a “Winnable War,” Emphasizes Enforcement and Incarceration as Solution

Attorney General Jeff Sessions

Sessions Announces New Drug Prosecution Measures in Ohio Speech on Opioid Crisis; Speech Comes After Trump Opioid Commission Calls for More Treatment to End Opioid Crisis

OHIO—(ENEWSPF)—August 2, 2017. In a speech in Columbus Ohio today Sessions announced a new plan to boost investigations and prosecutions of opioid prescribers and dispensers and reiterated his support for a law enforcement-led approach to drug policy. Sessions repeated his long-held skepticism of treatment saying it is “not enough” and urged law enforcement to pursue illegal possession of prescriptions just days after President Trump’s bipartisan Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis released an interim report to the president recommending a major expansion of treatment and other health resources to address the opioid crisis.

“Sessions is clearly not on the same page as the experts when it comes to the opioid epidemic,” said Michael Collins, Deputy Director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of National Affairs. “His emphasis on enforcement as the only approach is directly at odds with the White House Commission’s recommendations on expanding treatment and embracing public health approaches. The Commission had some forward-thinking suggestions, whereas Sessions is keen to take us back to the failed lock-them-up and throw away the key approach of 1980s.”

Advocates say that Sessions’s comments raise questions about whether his approach to drug policy will undermine the recommendations the opioid commission has made to Trump. Indeed, in his remarks Sessions called the opioid epidemic “a winnable war,” directly channeling the language of the failed war on drugs. Sessions also announced the formation of the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit, with twelve prosecutors to “target and prosecute these doctors, pharmacies, and medical providers who are furthering this epidemic to line their pockets.” Critics note that the DEA proposed a similar program earlier in the year, which was viewed by critics as a backdoor way of expanding the war on drugs.

In addition to his problematic statement that treatment “very often fails,” Sessions also repeated the myth-laden story of an Ohio police officer who claimed to have overdosed by touching fentanyl. The story has since been debunked by medical experts who note that you cannot overdose simply by touching fentanyl. Such scaremongering also echoes the worst of the drug war.


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Los Angeles Times

White House commission recommends president declare a national emergency over the deadly opioid epidemic, By: Ann Simmons, July 31, 2017

Declaring that the “nation is in crisis,” the White House commission on opioid addiction has recommended that President Trump declare a national emergency over the epidemic that each day kills dozens of Americans.

“Your declaration would empower your Cabinet to take bold steps and would force Congress to focus on funding and empowering the executive branch even further to deal with this loss of life,” the Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis wrote in its interim report released Monday. “It would also awaken every American to this simple fact: If this scourge has not found you or your family yet, without bold action by everyone, it soon will.”

The commission, led by Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, was created in March and charged with studying ways to combat and treat drug abuse, addiction and the opioid crisis. Citing data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the commission said the epidemic claims an average of 142 lives a day.

“We must act boldly to stop it,” the commission wrote. “The opioid epidemic we are facing is unparalleled.”

Between 1999 and 2015, more than 560,000 people in the United States died of drug overdoses, a death toll larger than the population of Atlanta. In 2015, nearly two-thirds of drug overdoses were linked to opioids, including Percocet, OxyContin, heroin and fentanyl. There were more than 50,000 deaths from drug abuse and addiction in 2015, according to figures released by the White House when the commission was created.

The commission, which said it had received information and suggestions from numerous groups and individuals, offered several other recommendations. They include increasing the capacity for treatment, mandating education initiatives for prescribers and boosting resources for law enforcement agencies to fight the trafficking and distribution of illicit fentanyl.

The proposals also call for establishing a national program to expand access to medications that have been shown to reduce overdose deaths. One of those drugs, naloxone, which is considered to be “a lifesaver that rapidly reverses opioid overdose,” should be prescribed with opioids in certain cases and dispensed through standing prescriptions, the commission said.

The recommendations were greeted with mixed reviews by anti-addiction groups and experts in opioid abuse.

“I think they offer a welcome departure from the Trump administration’s overall approach to drug policy so far,” said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs at the New York-based nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance, noting the administration’s attempts to roll back healthcare for people who struggle with addiction. The Affordable Care Act enabled millions of people to get treatment and health services, Smith said.

He praised the recommendations to expand access to medication-assisted treatment and reduce fear among those who need to call 911 in the case of an overdose.

But there were several “glaring omissions” in the report, Smith said. They include failing to address the issue of the criminalization of people who use illicit substances.

“The reality is that law enforcement, in a number of places around the country, are increasingly turning toward measures that re-criminalize overdose,” Smith said. “… This is the elephant in the room that needs to be addressed if we’re really going to make lasting progress in reducing demand for substances and reducing barriers to treatment and other services and ending the opioid crisis.”

Dr. Andrew Kolodny, executive director and co-founder of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, said he would have liked to have seen more emphasis on federal funding to help states tackle the opioid problem.

“I believe we need $60 billion over 10 years to address this problem,” Kolodny said. “I would have liked to have seen them call on the federal government to make an enormous investment expanding access to the most effective treatment for opioid addiction.”

Kolodny, who is a researcher at Brandeis University and specializes in opioids, said he was concerned that treatment centers were being required to have certain drugs that were not proved to be effective.

Kolodny said that bringing the opioid epidemic under control required better regulation of prescribers and the companies that make opioids.

The White House commission has promised a final report laying out additional recommendations but did not say when it would be finished.

Washington Post

White House opioid commission to Trump: ‘Declare a national emergency’ on drug overdoses, By: Christopher Ingraham, July 31, 2017

The President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis issued a preliminary report on Monday stating that its “first and most urgent recommendation” is for the president to “declare a national emergency under either the Public Health Service Act or the Stafford Act.”

“With approximately 142 Americans dying every day,” the report notes, “America is enduring a death toll equal to September 11th every three weeks.”

The commission, led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, states that the goals of such a declaration would be to “force Congress to focus on funding” and to “awaken every American to this simple fact: if this scourge has not found you or your family yet, without bold action by everyone, it soon will.”

In 2015, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures, heroin deaths alone surpassed gun homicides for the first time. More than 33,000 people died of opioid overdose, with another 20,000 dying from other drugs. A recent federal study found that prescription painkillers are now more widely used than tobacco.

Prescription overdose deaths began to rise in the mid-2000, following aggressive marketing and widespread prescribing of the drugs starting in the late 1990s. In response, state and federal authorities began cracking down on prescription opiate availability, introducing “abuse-deterrent” formulations, tighter prescribing guidelines and operations targeting “pill mills” that made the drugs widely available.

But in response to these interventions, many painkiller abusers appear to have switched to illicit street drugs. As prescription painkiller deaths started to fall, heroin overdoses increased dramatically. The latest development has been the emergence of powerful synthetic opiates like fentanyl, which are sometimes mixed with heroin with fatal consequences for unsuspecting users.

In his inaugural address, President Trump cited “drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential,” vowing that “this American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” Trump established the opioid commission to study the issue in March, with a mandate to “study ways to combat and treat the scourge of drug abuse, addiction, and the opioid crisis.”

In addition to declaring a national emergency, the commission’s first report includes a number of recommendations that public health experts and drug policy reformers have been advocating for years. They include:

Expanding capacity for drug treatment under Medicaid;

Increasing the use of medication-assisted treatments, like buprenorphine and suboxone, for opioid disorders;

Encouraging the development of non-opioid pain relievers;

Mandating that every local law enforcement officer in the nation carry naloxone, the drug that rapidly reverses opiate overdose;

Broadening “good Samaritan” laws that shield individuals from prosecution when they report a drug overdose to first responders or law enforcement officials.

Notably absent from the report are a number of tough-on-crime measures that Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have repeatedly offered up as solutions to the opioid crisis, including building a wall on the Mexican border, expanding the use of mandatory minimum sentencing for drug crimes, and seizing more cash and property from individuals suspected of drug crimes.

“The interim report is mostly appropriately focused around dealing with the opioid crisis as the health issue that it is,” said Grant W. Smith of the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that advocates for a more public health-centered approach to drug issues. “It offers a sharp contrast to the overall approach that the Trump administration has been taking to escalate the war on drugs.”

However, Smith had some concerns about whether an emergency declaration would expand the powers of the president and attorney general in a way that could allow abuse of law enforcement authority. He also noted that the Medicaid cuts discussed under various plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act could have devastated drug treatment availability, contrary to what the report recommends.

The commission’s report repeatedly addresses the president directly and encourages him to use his bully pulpit to raise awareness of the issue. “Our country needs you, Mr. President,” it concludes. “We know you care deeply about this issue. We also know that you will use the authority of your office to deal with our nation’s problems.”