As an opioid epidemic scars the nation, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions traveled from Tampa to Key West to Miami this week to declare a new war on drugs — one intended to stop the deadly toll of addictive painkillers, heroin and fentanyl in Florida and other ravaged states.
Sessions acknowledged at a South Florida opioid summit on Thursday that the battle will be far different from the one carried out against the Colombian cartels and cocaine cowboys of the violent Miami Vice era.
Sessions told a gathering of law enforcement, public health and military officials at the U.S. Southern Command in Doral that the fight must be waged in the community, on the internet and in foreign countries such as Mexico and China. In those countries, clandestine labs send opioids, methamphetamine and other unlawful drugs through the U.S. mail and courier services to both traffickers and users.
“We all got to figure out how we’re going to change,” Sessions said Thursday morning, before leading the closed-door opioid summit at the Southern Command. “It cannot be business as usual. ... It hasn’t been effective. Things have changed, and we have to change.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
The Southern Command’s leader, U.S. Navy Adm. Kurt Tidd, agreed with Sessions, saying: “This scourge challenges our traditional methods of dealing with [drug] threats.” He said the goal of the summit was to explore collaborative ways to tackle the opioid crisis, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives nationwide.
In October, President Donald Trump declared a public health emergency to deal with the opioid epidemic, with more than 140 Americans dying every day from overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In his State of the Union address last week, Trump said his administration “is committed to fighting the drug epidemic and helping get treatment for those in need.”
Some critics say the administration has been all talk and no action, questioning not only lack of funding and strategy but also putting former Trump campaign manager and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway in control of the opioid agenda.
On Thursday, Sessions cited mainly new law enforcement efforts to combat the epidemic. This week, the Drug Enforcement Administration placed all analogues of illicit fentanyl into a Schedule I category, to help boost the prosecution of trafficking cases. The illegal drug, a synthetic form of heroin that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, contributed to more than half of the nation’s 64,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016.
Sessions also said he has established a nationwide law enforcement team led by the FBI, DEA and other federal agencies, which will be called J-CODE: Joint Criminal Opioid Darknet Enforcement. It will target traffickers who illegally sell drugs online, such as the Dark Web.
“If you can get on [the Dark Web], you can order drugs, guns and fentanyl right to your house,” Sessions told the gathering.
Three years ago, the Miami Herald published a series of stories that spotlighted the illegal pipeline of synthetic drugs ordered over the internet and imported from China. Among them: fentanyl.
During his stop at a similar event in Tampa on Wednesday, Sessions cited the death toll caused by fentanyl and other opioids throughout Florida during 2016.
“In just one year, we lost 5,700 Floridians — an increase of nearly 1,500 — to opioid-related deaths,” Sessions said. “And as we all know, these are not numbers — these are moms, dads, daughters, spouses, friends and neighbors.”
Sessions highlighted the tragic death of Alton Banks, a 10-year-old Overtown boy who died last June and was found to have the lethal combination of heroin and fentanyl in his system. Police said they didn't know how Banks, a Frederick Douglass Elementary School student, came into contact with the opioids.
Illicit fentanyl can be so powerful that just a speck breathed in or absorbed through the skin can fatally affect an unwitting victim.
“But let me tell you this: We will not stand by and let more of our friends, family members or neighbors get addicted or die of drug overdoses,” Sessions said in Tampa.
In his address at the Southern Command in Doral, however, Sessions talked mostly about law enforcement efforts and very little about drug prevention and treatment of opioid users. It was as if he were taking the gathering back to the anti-drug slogan of the Reagan administration: Just Say No!
“The nation has got to get its head straight,” Sessions said. “We’ve got to get people not to get started.”