Attorney General Jeff Sessions created a new “senior position” at the Department of Justice Wednesday, director of opioid enforcement and prevention efforts, to help combat what is now far and away the deadliest drug epidemic in American history.
“With one American dying of a drug overdose every nine minutes, we need all hands on deck,” Attorney General Sessions said of the decision. He continued:
That’s why President Trump has made ending the drug epidemic a top priority. This Department of Justice embraces that goal, and we have taken a number of steps this year to do our part. We have indicted hundreds of defendants for drug related healthcare fraud, sent more prosecutors to where they’re needed most, and we’ve taken on the gangs and cartels. Today we take the next step: creating a senior level official position at the Department to focus entirely on this issue. This Department will continue to follow the President’s lead, and I am confident that we can and will turn the tide of the drug crisis.
The decision was announced the same day Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new numbers putting total estimated drug overdose deaths at 63,600 for 2016. This figure is more than triple that of 1999 and up sharply even from the beginning of this record-setting decade. The number outpaces earlier 2016 estimates of 59,000 and outstrips deaths from influenza and pneumonia.
The biggest driver of this tragedy is the rising of opioids, both traditional semi-synthetic or natural opioids like heroin and oxycodone and the newer fully-synthetic and extraordinarily potent opioids like fentanyl and carfentanyl that drug dealers have rapidly pushed into the supply stream. The latter category of deaths has increased especially rapidly, doubling just from 2015 to 2016, according to the CDC.
CNN’s interpretation of the numbers puts opioid overdoses at roughly two-thirds of drug deaths, 42,249, more than all deaths from breast cancer.
Sessions has made containing the opioid crisis a major focus of his tenure at DOJ. Last month, for example, he announced the first new Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) field office since the late 1990s. Located in Louisville, Kentucky, this office will cover West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. The CDC’s new report indicates West Virginia is the state hardest hit by overdoses, with a shocking age-adjusted 52 deaths per 100,000 people.
“I know that this crisis is daunting- the death rates are stunning- and it can be discouraging,” Sessions said at that time. “But we will turn the tide. When the men and women of law enforcement work effectively in a focused way, we can stop the growth of destructive addiction, keep the American people safe, and save lives.”