Attorney General Sessions Calls Opioid Crisis ‘A Winnable War’

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the effort to combat the opioid crisis “is a winnable war.”

Speaking to a room of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officers on the grounds of Kennedy Airport, Sessions said drugs are now “more powerful, more addictive, more dangerous than ever.”

“In confronting the worst drug crisis in our history, we need to use every lawful tool we have and we intend to do so,” Sessions said. “If we do, there is hope. I agree with the president. This is a winnable war.”

President Donald Trump Thursday declared opioid abuse a national public health emergency and announced new steps to combat what he described as the worst drug crisis in U.S. history.

“We owe it to our children and to our country to do everything in our power to address this national shame and this human tragedy,” the president said in a speech at the White House.

More than 64,000 people died from drug overdoses in the United States last year alone.

“That would be the highest drug death toll and the fastest increase in the death in American history,” Sessions said.

Last year in the Tri-State area, opioid abuse killed more than 2,600 people in New York state, half in New York City, more than 2,000 in New Jersey and more than 900 in Connecticut.

Sessions Friday praised New York and New Jersey law enforcement for stopping drugs.

“Law enforcement in the New York area has done a heroic job in interdicting illegal drugs,” he said. “In June, state and local police a few miles from here in Bergen County, New Jersey seized a 120 kilograms of heroin.”

Sessions also commended those already making a difference, like Customs and Border Protection Officer Thomas Pagano.

“The more you look, the more you’re gonna find,” he told CBS2’s Janelle Burrell.

Pagano is responsible for intercepting 30 different packages of fentanyl in the mail system in the past two months. From Valley Stream, Long Island, he says it’s personal for him and his colleagues.

“We all know somebody who knows somebody or have a family member who knows somebody who has either been directly affected by drug addiction, overdose,” he said. “It hits close to home for lot of people.”

Trump’s declaration, which will be effective for 90 days and can be renewed, will allow the government to redirect resources in various ways and to expand access to medical services in rural areas.

But because the president stopped short of declaring the crisis a full-on “national emergency,” money will not be taken from the public health emergency fund, which some lawmakers say falls far short.

“Funds in that account are like $56,000,” Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi said. “So show me the money.”

The federal government estimates that combating the crisis will cost $75 billion a year.

As a result of Trump’s declaration, officials will be able to expand access to telemedicine services, including substance abuse treatment for people living in rural and remote areas. Officials will also be able to more easily deploy state and federal workers, secure Department of Labor grants for the unemployed, and shift funding for HIV and AIDs programs to provide more substance abuse treatment for people already eligible for those programs.

Trump said his administration would also be working to reduce regulatory barriers, such as one that bars Medicaid from paying for addiction treatment in residential rehab facilities larger than 16 beds. He spoke of ongoing efforts to require opioid prescribers to undergo special training, the Justice Department’s targeting of opioid dealers and efforts to develop a non-addictive painkiller.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer said the Drug Enforcement Agency will station a special heroin enforcement team on Long Island.

The New York Democrat said Friday the team of two new DEA agents and two officers from an existing task force will focus on fighting heroin and fentanyl trafficking.

The team is among six being formed nationwide with $12.5 million in federal funding. Other teams will be in Charleston, South Carolina; Cleveland; Cincinnati; New Bedford, Massachusetts and Raleigh, North Carolina.

Schumer said the New York team will help police on Long Island and in New York City.

The president still needs to appoint some key leaders in the battle, including a Health and Human Services secretary, a drug czar and an administrator for the Drug Enforcement Agency.

(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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