Attorney General Jeff Sessions addressed the 30th DARE Training Conference in Dallas, Texas Tuesday, devoting much of his speech to the skyrocketing level of drug overdoses in America.
“The deaths that we are seeing is unprecedented in the history of the republic,” Sessions told the crowd, including the law enforcement officers there to receive the training required to deliver the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) curriculum to classrooms in their community.
Sessions hearkened back to the program’s founding in the 1980s by Los Angeles Sheriff Darryl Gates and its nationalization as a signature program of first lady Nancy Reagan.
“The DARE team is ready to meet this new challenge, just like you did in the 80s and 90s,” Sessions said, continuing:
Things were out of control, people were excusing drug abuse, saying, “Nothing should be done about it, prison is bad.” Nancy Regan tried to say “just say no,” they mocked her, saying it was ridiculous, but the truth was we needed to start talking about the dangers of drug abuse.
Sessions went on to emphasize just how out-of-control the overdose crisis has become. “For those Americans under 50,” he said, “drug abuse is now the leading cause of death.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics show that between 1999 and 2015, overdose deaths from opioids, the class of drugs that includes heroin, most perscription painkillers, and newer synthetic derivatives like fentanyl, has more than quadrupled in America.
Sessions lamented that:
In 2015, more than 52,000 Americans lost their lives to drug overdoses – 1,000 every week. More died of drug overdoses in 2015 than died from car crashes or died at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
And the numbers we have for 2016 show another increase—a big increase. Based on preliminary data, nearly 60,000 Americans lost their lives to drug overdoses last year. That’s unprecedented in American history. That will be the highest drug death toll and the fastest increase in the death toll in American history … The epidemic is growing. It’s only going to get worse, it does appear, unless we take action.
After explaining the danger that law enforcement and other first responders face merely from the risk of accidentally coming in contact with hyperpotent drugs like fentanyl, Sessions again turned to his experience in the 1980s to lay out a plan for combating the epidemic:
This is not the nation’s first drug crisis. In the 1980s, we confronted, when I was a United States attorney, skyrocketing drug abuse rates across the country, but the nation rose to the occasion and we successful reversed those trends. It can be done again … In 1980, half of high school seniors admitted they had used an illegal drug sometime that year, but through enforcing our laws, good law enforcement, and effective prevention programs, we were steadily able to bring that rate down. But it took years, it didn’t happen overnight. That’s why I’m so pained, it hurts me so badly to see the trends we are on today.
The attorney general lashed out at lax attitudes towards drug use prevalent in today’s society:
Some people today say that the solution to the problem of drug abuse is to be more accepting of the problem. Just kind of live with it, don’t talk about it, don’t do anything. They say marijuana use can prevent addiction. You’ve heard them say that. Unbelievable … That was the mentality in the late 1970s and the early 1980s too. To me, that just doesn’t make sense.
Also subject to Sessions’s criticism were the policies of the previous administration:
We had in the previous administration, policies that were directed to our U.S. attorneys … that directed them not to charge the most serious offenses that would carry certain minimum sentences, mandatory sentences. Prosecutors were required to leave out true facts in order to achieve sentences lighter than those required by law. This was billed as an effort to curb “mass incarceration.”
What was the result? Well, it’s not gone well in my opinion. A lot of our policies throughout the country have misinterpreted the challenges we face. Sentences went down but crime has gone up. Sentences for federal drug crimes dropped by 18 percent from 2009 to 2016. Violent crime—which had been decreasing basically for 30 years—suddenly started going up again … Two years after this policy change, the United States suffered the largest single-year increase in overall violent crime since 1991.
Sessions made headlines earlier this year with his issuance of a new sentencing memo revoking the Holder Memo he referenced above, much to the chagrin of “criminal justice reform” advocates and many in the mainstream press. A group representing federal prosecutors, however, was very enthusiastic at its issuance.