TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Two days after instructing federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty in drug-related cases, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions came to Tallahassee on Thursday to promote President Donald Trump’s plan to combat the deadly opioid epidemic.
Sessions, addressing dozens of law enforcement officials, defended Trump’s controversial death-penalty position, which has sparked pushback from Democrats and others who accuse the president of targeting minorities in a newly resurrected war on drugs.
“We will not hesitate to pursue maximum sentences allowed by law, and if appropriate, the death penalty. Our message should be clear. Business as usual is over,” Sessions, a former U.S. senator from Alabama, said during Thursday’s 30-minute speech inside the federal courthouse. “Plain and simple, drug traffickers show no respect for human dignity. They put their greed ahead of the safety and even the lives of others, knowing people will be dying as a result of their products.”
The president’s “Initiative to Stop Opioid Abuse,” released Monday, addresses issues such as over-prescription, illegal drug supplies, and access to recovery and support services, such as medication-assisted treatment.
Sessions announced Thursday that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is sending 250 task force officers, and dozens of analysts, to places in the nation “where the opioid crisis is at its worst.”
The task forces will focus on drug traffickers and medical professionals who “are fueling the opioid crisis,” Sessions said.
“Drug trafficking leads directly to addiction. Addiction leads to death around our country. It’s also an inherently violent and deadly business,” he said.
The president’s plan also includes a national campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of prescription and street drugs, as well as support for research to develop a vaccine to prevent opioid addiction.
The same day Trump announced his proposal, Gov, Rick Scott signed into law a sweeping measure aimed at keeping patients from getting hooked on powerful prescription drugs and then turning to even deadlier street drugs like heroin and fentanyl. The $65 million package, nearly half of which comes from federal funds, includes a controversial provision that places limits on prescriptions that doctors can write for treatment of acute pain.
Doctors in many cases would be limited to writing prescriptions for three-day supplies, though they could prescribe up to seven-day supplies of controlled substances if “medically necessary.” Cancer patients, people who are terminally ill, palliative care patients and those who suffer from major trauma would be exempt from the limits.
Neither Scott nor Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who has led efforts to combat opioid addiction, were present for Sessions’ speech, the second recent opioid-focused talk the U.S. attorney general has delivered in Florida.
Speaking in Tampa last month, Session created headlines when he said patients in pain “need to take aspirin sometimes” rather than addictive opioids.
Sessions’ Tallahassee appearance came on the same day Kellyanne Conway, a Trump administration official who oversees the White House’s efforts to combat the opioid crisis, advised a group of college students to “eat the ice cream, have the French fry, don’t buy the street drug,” according to a report in The Hill.
In Tallahassee, Sessions --- who recently created a task force to look into bringing lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and distributors --- avoided the mention of aspirin, but he reiterated that doctors are over-prescribing pain medications.
Sessions also said he has assigned a dozen federal prosecutors to “opioid hot-spots” --- including the Middle District of Florida --- to focus on investigating and prosecuting opioid-related health care fraud.
But Democrats blasted the Trump administration’s approach to the opioid epidemic, accusing the president of targeting minorities in a revamped war on drugs.
"Trump's plan to deal with the opioid crisis is more of the same --- a lot of talk and no action --- furthermore he is proposing outrageous, dictatorship-style sentences like capital punishment for drug offenders,” state Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, said in a statement. “Jeff Sessions continues to carry Trump's policies and message --- which target communities of color and offers no meaningful action and too few funding sources for prevention.”
Sessions, meanwhile praised Trump for making it a priority to “defeat the scourge of drugs.”
In a lighter moment Thursday, Sessions, part of an administration where several high-ranking officials have recently been shown the door, alluded to the vagaries of life in the nation’s Capitol.
“It’s great to be here. A little better climate --- I’m talking about weather and politics --- than Washington, D.C.,” Sessions joked. “It’s a rough bunch up there. I don’t even have a dog. At least you should have a dog in that forsaken place.”
Sessions’ visit came less than a day after Congress approved a $1.3 trillion spending package that includes $3.3 billion for mental-health and substance-abuse treatment and services.
The attorney general said Trump is seeking an additional $6 billion next year, and another $6 billion the following year, to combat what he characterized as the nation’s “deadliest drug crisis ever.”
Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death for Americans under age 50, Sessions said. In 2016, 64,000 Americans died from drug-related causes, an increase from 52,000 the prior year and the equivalent of the city of Daytona Beach, according to Sessions. And deaths in 2017 are expected to climb even higher, he predicted.
“We need to reverse that trend,” Sessions said.
The data is Florida is just as grim. A report from Florida's medical examiners released in November showed dramatic increases in all types of drug-related deaths, including a 97 percent increase in deaths caused by the synthetic opioid fentanyl.
The number of opioid-related deaths --- 5,725 in 2016 --- grew by 35 percent. Opioids were either the cause of death or were present in the people who died, according to the report.
Even more troubling, medical examiners reported that deaths related to all kinds of drugs --- prescription drugs, such as oxycodone, and street drugs, like heroin and cocaine --- and alcohol were on the rise.
And, doctors and experts say, the numbers of drug-related deaths are more dire than the data in the report reflects.
“These are not just numbers. They are moms and dads, brothers and sisters, daughters, spouses, friends and neighbors. It’s just a very sad thing. More and more people are being touched by this disaster,” Sessions said.