Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Wednesday that he had been"dubious" of a 2016 law that effectively took away the Drug Enforcement Administration's most potent weapons against distributors and manufacturers of prescription opioids and he would support new legislation to expand the agency's arsenal.
At a news conference at the Justice Department, Sessions said that the DEA faced more challenges than it would have "had the law not passed" and that he would support a new law "to make sure we're fully able to carry out effective enforcement policies."
"I was dubious about the law when it passed," said Sessions, who was a senator before being appointed attorney general. "I believe I was maybe the last person that went along with it after the department and DEA agreed to accept it. . . . We do need legislation. We can listen to the concerns that certain people had and draft good legislation, but I would be supportive of new legislation to be able to have a full toolbox in dealing with the problem of improper sale policies."
The remarks came after Sessions and acting DEA administrator Robert W. Patterson laid out steps they plan to take in an effort to stem the opioid crisis.
Sessions also announced $12 million in grants and a new DEA division overseeing the Appalachian region to help law enforcement officials combat illicit drugs, especially prescription opioids, and said he has directed his U.S. attorneys to designate an opioid coordinator in their offices.
"Today we are facing the deadliest drug crisis in American history," Sessions said. "We've never, ever seen the death rates that we've having today — 64,000 died last year."
The DEA will establish its new division, the Louisville Field Division, on Jan. 1 to unify its drug trafficking investigations, officials said. The division will include Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia, will have about 90 special agents and 130 task-force officers, and focus on illicit drug trafficking in the Appalachian Mountains.
Kellyanne Conway, one of President Trump's top advisers, has been tasked with overseeing White House initiatives to combat opioid abuse, Sessions said. She attended the announcement Wednesday, standing off to the side.
"The president has made this a White House priority. He's asked her to coordinate and lead the effort from the White House," Sessions said, calling Conway "exceedingly talented."
Sessions's remarks on the 2016 law came in response to a question from a reporter asking about an investigation by The Washington Post and "60 Minutes" that highlighted how drug distributors worked with a handful of lawmakers at the height of the opioid epidemic to push through legislation that stripped the DEA of an important weapon. The law — which passed without opposition — made it virtually impossible for the DEA to freeze questionable shipments of pain pills from drug companies.
After the bill passed, DEA Chief Administrative Law Judge John J. Mulrooney II wrote in a soon-to-be-published law review article that by changing a few words in the law that governs drug distributors' responsibilities, Congress virtually eliminated the DEA's authority to use immediate suspension orders.
Mulrooney also wrote that the law weakens another powerful DEA enforcement tool, known as orders to show cause, that forces companies accused of failing to report suspicious orders of narcotics to show why they should be allowed to continue to operate in the face of alleged violations. Under the new law, those companies are allowed to submit corrective action plans before the DEA can impose sanctions on them.
Mulrooney likened that provision to allowing bank robbers to "round up and return ink-stained money and agree not to rob any more banks."
Sessions's announcement was the latest action taken by the Justice Department to try to stem increasing opioid-related overdose deaths. Earlier this month, the department announced a change in the way fentanyl is classified so that anyone who possesses, imports, distributes or manufactures a fentanyl-related substance can be criminally prosecuted.
In October, federal prosecutors charged two Chinese nationals who sold fentanyl to Americans over the Internet in a large international conspiracy case. The Justice Department alleged that one of the men ran websites selling fentanyl directly to U.S. customers and also operated at least two chemical plants in China that were capable of producing tons of fentanyl and fentanyl analogues.
"The truth is clear: Most fentanyl enters the United States from China," Sessions said Wednesday. "There is no doubt about that. I raised it with a recent Chinese delegation. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, in a recent visit to China, made it an important issue with them, and the recent trip by President Trump to China involved his personal raising of this issue and strongly emphasizing it to our Chinese neighbors. So we're going to need more support from China. Hopefully we will get that."
In a memo to his U.S. attorneys, Sessions said that by Dec. 15, each must designate an opioid coordinator who is responsible for opioid, heroin and fentanyl cases and for developing a strategy to combat the drug epidemic.
"The ongoing opioid epidemic is destroying the lives of countless Americans," Sessions wrote.