CHARLESTON, W.Va. (CN) – Visiting West Virginia on Thursday for a summit on opioid abuse, Attorney General Jeff Sessions did something unusual for the Trump administration in recent days — staying on message and steadfastly avoiding the subject of former FBI Director James Comey’s firing.
Sessions was the keynote speaker Thursday at the DEA 360 Heroin and Opioid Response Summit at the University of Charleston.
The summit is part of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration’s new 360 strategy, a pilot program that has the federal organization partnering closely with state and local law enforcement to combat the nation’s substance abuse epidemic.
Charleston is one of six pilot cities.
During his remarks, Sessions said stemming the rise of opioid addition requires an “all-hands-on deck response.”
Though enforcement will continue to play major role in trying to stem the rising tide of opioid abuse in states like West Virginia, the ultimate goal of the partnership between law enforcement and local communities is prevention, he said.
“We can’t arrest our way out of the problem and that is true, we can’t. It is a big critical part of it, but prevention, I truly believe, is the greatest part of our challenge and over time prevention will help us be the most effective,” Sessions said.
Sessions said 53,000 Americans died from an overdose last year, including 864 people in West Virginia alone, according to the West Virginia Health Statistics Center.
Of the deaths nationwide, more than two-thirds were due to opioids, either prescriptions or heroin, Sessions said.
“We do not need to go back to that trend. We can stop it before it gets there, but we’re on a bad trend right now,” he said. “We’ve got too much complacency about drugs, too much talk about recreational drugs. That’s the same thing you used to hear in the 80s.”
When his speech ended, Sessions waved to the crowd and immediately left the stage, followed by U.S. Attorney Carol Casto, U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, and DEA Special Agent Karl Colder.
He did not take questions from the media following the speech.
Immediately after Trump fired Comey, he said he made his decision based on the recommendation of both Sessions, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
In his letter recommending Comey’s firing, Sessions said “a fresh start is needed at the leadership of the FBI.”
The director, he added, “must be someone who follows faithfully the rules and principles of the Department of Justice and who sets the right example for our law enforcement officials and others in the Department.”
Despite the summit being overshadowed by the Comey firing, attendee
Jim Johnson, a retired police officer, and director Office of Drug Control Policy for Huntington, West Virginia, said he was delighted by Sessions’ comments and with what he heard about the new DEA 360 strategy.
“It’s not a Huntington problem. It’s not a West Virginia problem. It’s a problem for the entire country,” Johnson said. “What they’ve been saying is what we’ve been saying for the last three years. It’s going to take holistic approach.”
The event was co-sponsored by Alexandria, Va.-based non-profit Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America. and the U.C. School of Pharmacy.