While Sessions touched on opioids and their consequences, he focused his speech on the necessity of returning to "war on drugs" policies like the DARE program and harsh sentences for drug offenders subject to federal punishment.
"Now, some people today say that the solution to the problem of drug abuse is to be more accepting of the problem of drug abuse. They say marijuana use can prevent addiction. They say the answer is only treatment. They say don’t talk about enforcement," Sessions said. "To me, that just doesn’t make any sense. In fact, I would argue that one reason that we are in such a crisis right now is that we have subscribed to this mistaken idea that drug abuse is no big deal."
The best prevention for opioid abuse, Sessions insisted, is law enforcement. "At the Department of Justice, we are working keep drugs out of our country to reduce availability, to drive up its price, and to reduce its purity and addictiveness," he said.
In May, Sessions ordered federal prosecutors to pursue the harshest sentences possible for drug offenders,
rejecting the Obama justice department's directive to avoid prosecutions of low-level drug offenders. Sessions said this was essential to curb violent crime that accompanies the sale and use of drugs.
"Prosecutors were required to leave out true facts in order to achieve sentences lighter than required by law. This was billed as an effort to curb 'mass incarceration' of 'low-level offenders,' but in reality it covered offenders apprehended with large quantities of dangerous drugs," Sessions said. "What was the result? It was exactly what you would think: Sentences went down and crime went up. Sentences for federal drug crimes dropped by 18 percent from 2009 to 2016. Violent crime —which had been decreasing for two decades — suddenly went up again. Two years after this policy change, the United States suffered the largest single-year increase in the overall violent crime rate since 1991."
"They say the answer is only treatment. They say don’t talk about enforcement. To me, that just doesn’t make any sense." – U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions
Sessions' claims linking drug sentences and violent crime have little basis in academic and scientific research. A 2015 review of research on drug sentences and crime rates by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law found that longer sentences and higher levels of incarcerations were responsible for 0 percent to 7 percent of the overall drop in violent crime that's happened in the United States since the early '90s. A 2014 analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that states that reduced their incarceration rates over the same period saw some of the biggest drops in crime.
DARE has largely fallen out of fashion since its '80s and early '90s heyday, but Sessions still lauds the program.
"I believe that DARE was instrumental to our success by educating children on the dangers of drug use. I firmly believe that you have saved lives. And I want to say thank you for that," Sessions said. "Whenever I ask adults around age 30 about prevention, they always mention the DARE program. Your efforts work. Lives and futures are saved."
While students who went through the DARE program experienced attitude changes regarding illegal drugs and gained knowledge about the dangers of drugs, the program had little to no impact on whether participating children actually used drugs, a 1996 study in Preventative Medicine found. Even the effects that occured, like changes in attitude and knowledge, dissipated after five years.
"We have to create a cultural climate that is hostile to drug abuse." – U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions
In order to stem the tide of the opioid epidemic, Sessions concluded, it must be made clear that drugs are both illegal and unacceptable, something the Obama administration failed to do.
"Experience has shown, sadly, that it is not enough that dangerous drugs are illegal," Sessions said. "We also have to make them unacceptable. We have to create a cultural climate that is hostile to drug abuse. In recent years, government officials were sending mixed messages about drugs. We need to send a clear message."