U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions offered a somber idea to illustrate just how many people die from opioid abuse in this country.
In Raleigh on Tuesday afternoon to meet with law enforcement and federal prosecutors in North Carolina, Sessions laid out some of the ideas the Trump administration has for battling a crisis with opioids that he said left 64,000 dead in this country in 2016.
"If you take 64,000, that's more than enough to fill up Carter-Finley stadium," Sessions said, making note of the nearly 57,600 seats for the Wolfpack football stadium. "Imagine that entire crowd at a Wolfpack game deceased as a result of overdoses in one year."
Sessions, who spoke for less than a half hour, did not take questions from the media or have public meetings.
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President Donald Trump's top prosecutor spent the morning in South Carolina, where he said he met with Homeland Security agents and sent a "message that the border is not open anymore."
Sessions, a former Republican senator from Alabama who rolled back many of the Justice Department programs started under the Obama administration, focused his Raleigh speech on opioids more than immigration issues.
He briefly discussed newly proposed regulations that could severely limit the amount of highly addictive opioid pain medication that drug companies can produce, while forcing them to account for illegitimate prescriptions across the country.
Under the proposed regulations, drug companies would have to work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state and federal agencies to justify how many pills they send to providers. The Drug Enforcement Administration would set production quotas based on those justifications.
"Under this proposed new rule, if DEA believes that a company’s opioids are being diverted for misuse, then they will reduce the amount of opioids that company can make,” Sessions said.
The proposed changes to regulations came after a lawsuit was filed by West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey accusing the DEA of allowing drug companies to create their own quotas for the manufacture of their pills without justifications for where they all would go.
The Trump administration's approach for decreasing the death toll related to opioid abuse is multipronged.
Law enforcement is going after traffickers, prescribers and clinics in enforcement operations. They are going after so-called "pill dumpers," or drug companies that send out extremely large amounts of prescription pills to pharmacies and doctors in vulnerable communities.
There also is money for treatment, Sessions said.
In North Carolina, the federal prosecutorial district that spans from Durham west to Winston-Salem has been selected as a "hot spot," with federal prosecutors specializing in drug enforcement assigned to that region.
Sessions noted the work being done by North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, who late last year sued Insys Therapeutics, an Arizona-based pharmaceutical company, accusing it of illegally pushing a fentanyl-based cancer pain medication at headache clinics in North Carolina to fatten company coffers.
Nationwide and in North Carolina, opioids – prescription and illicit – are the main driver of drug overdose deaths, which now top car accidents as the No. 1 cause of accidental death.
In North Carolina, it is estimated that nearly four people die each day from accidental drug overdoses. The widening epidemic can be traced to the 1990s, when doctors began to treat pain more aggressively.
Opioids are compounds that bind to the brain’s opioid receptors, blocking pain and slowing breathing. The drugs trigger the release of dopamine, and new users typically feel a calm, happy high while under the influence. Regular users develop a tolerance to the drugs, requiring more and more to achieve the same effect.
In February, when speaking to a U.S. attorney's office in Tampa, Florida, Sessions said he thought great strides toward combating the crisis could be made if people took over-the-counter drugs and "roughed it out."
Andrew Bates, who works with the Democratic political action committee and research group American Bridge, was critical of the Trump administration's opioid attack, saying the administration's words fail to match its actions.
"The opioid epidemic is agonizing families across North Carolina and the entire country, but the Trump Administration's record on this issue is defined by broken promises and policies that would make things worse," Bates said in a statement. "In October, Trump went back on his pledge to declare a 'national emergency' on opioids, which would have delivered a billion in federal aid to fight the epidemic, and the administration has still failed to act on the recommendations of its own commission on opioids. Moreover, medical experts warned that Trump's efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and severely cut Medicaid would be catastrophic for addiction treatment."
Chief Justice Mark Martin and Justice Paul Newby, the two Republicans on the state Supreme Court, attended Sessions' speech in Raleigh.
The attorney general took no questions from the media afterward, but agreed to pose for pictures in another room with law enforcement officers and prosecutors interested in a photo with him.