Calling the opioid epidemic the deadliest such crisis in American history, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions called upon social workers and law enforcement this week to “create and foster a culture that’s hostile to drug use.”
He was speaking to the annual conference of the National Alliance for Drug Endangered Children, and he highlighted some of the “tough on crime” efforts the Justice Department has made toward fighting the epidemic. For example, in May he reversed a policy put in place by the Obama administration that had limited mandatory-minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.
Earlier this summer, the DOJ charged over 400 physicians and healthcare professionals with opioid-related healthcare fraud. Early in August, he announced a pilot program sending 12 federal prosecutors out to cities dealing with the worst of the opioid crisis in an effort to fight healthcare fraud and opioid-related scams.
During his speech, he also accused Hollywood, the media and public officials of sending “mixed messages and accommodating messages about the harmfulness of drugs.” He did not name any specific public officials.
“This is unacceptable,” he said. “We must not capitulate intellectually or morally to drug use. We must create and foster a culture that is hostile to drug abuse. Accommodation to a rattlesnake in your bed is a path to disaster.”
That rattlesnake, if Sessions meant opioids like oxycodone, fentanyl and heroin, has indeed been a deadly one. Sessions cited preliminary estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saying that nearly 60,000 people died last year due to drug overdoses — about 60 percent of which involved opioids. That was a rise from 52,000 deaths in 2015.
Nearly a third of children who are placed in foster care in the U.S. are removed because of substance abuse by a parent, Sessions said.
The statistics are grim, but a “tough on crime” response may not be the most effective. As one protester outside the meeting reminded reporters, addiction is a medical condition. Cracking down on addicts merely ignores the underlying problem and shames people, making them less likely to seek help.
“We’ve got this revolving door of people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol and other things, and they just keep going in and out of our prison doors,” she said.