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Rosenstein: More Drug Prosecutions Needed as Overdose Rate Rises

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, accompanied by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, right, speaks at a news conference to announce an international cybercrime enforcement action at the Department of Justice on July 20, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON – As the U.S. grapples with skyrocketing drug overdose death rates, it makes sense for the Department of Justice to ramp up prosecution against drug offenders, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said today.

“If more people are dying of illegal substances, it makes sense that we should invest more resources in prosecuting that, and so we’re ramping up the commitment of resources to drugs,” Rosenstein said at the Heritage Foundation, adding that there was a lapse in drug enforcement with the prior administration.

Prescription opioids, fentanyl and heroin killed more than 33,000 people in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preliminary results show that 2016 is on a similar pace, with opioid drugs accounting for nearly half of the 64,000 projected overdose deaths.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has blamed lax attitudes on the American drug culture and the decriminalization of marijuana as contributors to the overdose crisis. He has vowed to crack down on so-called pill mills and crooked doctors prescribing exorbitant amounts of opioids, as well as marijuana providers in legal states like Colorado, Oregon and Washington. Rosenstein called marijuana prosecution a “very interesting challenge.”

“Our attorney general’s been very clear on our position and the position of the United States as it’s reflected in law,” he said. “Marijuana is illegal, and it’s a controlled substance, and there are no authorized uses for it, with very little exceptions for research approved by DEA, but there are several states that have decriminalized marijuana, so not enforcing it under state law.”

The Department of Justice under the previous administration responded to the decriminalization of marijuana in a series of memos meant to provide guidance on when to prosecute certain marijuana cases in legal and illegal states. He argued that many states that have decriminalized the substance have found greater harm than anticipated.

The department has previously cited issues with marijuana license holders in legal states engaging in illegal drug activity by shipping products to states where the substance is not allowed. Just because the previous administration provided lax guidance for marijuana businesses and users doesn’t mean that the substance is legal, from a federal standpoint, he said, and so it doesn’t mean these groups will be free from prosecution in the future.

“There’s been a lapse of enforcement. Where do we see the impact of that? We see it in crime rates. I think drug enforcement is the area where it’s most obvious and most devastating,” he said, before adding later: “We’ll be reviewing those policies.”

Rosenstein also touched on the pace of Senate confirmation for executive appointees, calling the process “very frustrating.” The White House has blamed Democrats for engaging in “needless obstruction” during the appointment process. Rosenstein said that’s what is “most depressing.”

“It has been very frustrating at the Department of Justice,” he said. “We have some really superb nominees for the leadership positions in the Department of Justice, and the process has been extremely slow. The confirmation process for reasons having nothing to do with the merit of the candidates has been slowed down.”

He said that it would be understandable if occasionally there were some issues with a particular nominee, but for the most part, it’s been a “matter of being mired down in process for people that we know are exceptionally qualified and ultimately will be confirmed.”

“I think it would be better for everybody if the Congress could at least identify folks who really aren’t controversial nominees who are going to be confirmed eventually, rather than delaying their confirmation, rather than disrupting their lives and creating difficulties not just for the Department of Justice but for other agencies government, to allow that process to move a little more quickly,” he said.