Opioid crisis demands full-court-press

Published 11:46 am Wednesday, March 27, 2019

By Zach Terwilliger

Zach Terwilliger

[Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on March 24, and is reprinted with the author’s permission.]

When Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell appeared on “60 Minutes” on March 10, he cited the opioid crisis as a threat to our country’s economic strength. He noted that opioid addiction has contributed to the “unusually large number of people in their prime working years who are not in the labor force” in the United States, which now “has a lower labor force participation rate than almost every other advanced country.”

His comments should remind Americans that the opioid epidemic not only destroys lives, but threatens the strength and viability of our nation. In my role as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, I see the alarming dimensions of this crisis daily. I have observed the emergence of a triple threat: 1) increasingly potent opioids dealt at the street level; 2) Chinese sourced fentanyl illicitly pressed into pills and disguised as legitimate prescription drugs; and 3) the diversion of prescription drugs onto the street. Users are at an increased risk because they are either unaware of what they are buying or they are using illicit narcotics with far more power than their bodies can withstand.

All across the Eastern District of Virginia, including here in Hampton Roads, I have made it one of my top priorities to prosecute opioid related cases. I make it known to my law enforcement partners that we do not have quantity threshold requirements for prosecuting fentanyl and heroin distribution cases. Further, any amount of fentanyl or heroin that results in an overdose has my prosecutors’ full attention and will be thoroughly investigated and prosecuted.

To maximize impact, we also have emphasized prosecutions of health care fraud and dirty doctors who betray their oath and add fuel to the opioid fire. We prosecute suppliers whether they are based in Virginia, Mexico, or hiding in the deep crevices of the Dark Web. We are 100 percent committed to attack this threat from every angle because we fully understand the fatal tragedies that unfold every day.

While multiple areas of the country are beginning to benefit from community-wide education and prevention efforts, these approaches must be buttressed by robust enforcement. This will remain true as long as local drug dealers, backed by a worldwide network of suppliers, continue to profit by poisoning our communities. On March 14, one such individual, a wholesale supplier of this poison was sentenced to 30 years in prison for her role in dealing fentanyl that led to multiple overdoses, including one that killed a young Virginia Beach woman. The dealer knew of the death, but instructed one co-conspirator to continue “business as usual.”

More and more, we are seeing dealers who know of the deaths they are causing and who do not hesitate to continue their drug dealing. That fatal combination of callousness and greed cries out for punishment as well as the specific and general deterrence that the federal prosecution affords. Let it be known that when drug dealers such as Michelle Best pursue their greed even in the face of the death they cause, we will pursue them to the fullest extent of the law. The results in this case should be a reminder to those in the community engaged in criminal activity of what they can and should face should they choose to peddle this poison.

While I pledge to you that my office will remain committed to our relentless approach to hold drug dealers accountable, I also recognize the vital importance of partnering with all sectors of the community for an all hands on deck approach. When we look back on this tragic chapter in our country’s history, those communities that will be seen to have led the country out of this dark crisis will have been those promoting a multi-faceted approach.

As a community and as a commonwealth we must remain vigilant in our efforts to combat this crisis and continue to press for robust enforcement, prevention, and treatment. My heartfelt thanks to all the women and men who are currently engaged in this fight, including devastated parents turned advocates, courageous law enforcement officers, treatment professionals, faith leaders, and so many others. We stand with you, and together we will prevail.

ZACH TERWILLIGER is the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. Contact him via Joshua.Stueve@usdoj.gov.