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In Harrisburg, Sessions commends law enforcement response to opiate epidemic

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During an address in Harrisburg on Friday, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions expressed sympathy for opiate addicts and their families while emphasizing his intent to fight the epidemic through strengthened law enforcement measures .

The roughly 20-minute speech took place before an audience made up largely of local law enforcement officers in a seventh-floor conference room of the federal courthouse building on Walnut Street. Sessions stuck mostly to prepared remarks and did not take questions from the audience.

"We are in the midst of a daily opioid crisis and now a deadly epidemic," he said. "Make no mistake, however, that combating this poison is a top priority for President Trump and his administration, and you can be sure that we are taking action to address it." 

Sessions vowed that law enforcement officers would hunt down drug dealers and unscrupulous doctors and announced $20 million in federal grants that he said would help them do just that. He also noted past successes officials have had in taking down high-profile offenders, including a case that York County police assisted with that led in April to a man receiving a 29-year prison sentence for distributing a fatal dose of heroin.

He also noted the impact the opiate epidemic has had on families, as well as on American businesses.

"Drug abuse reduces the productivity of our workers, eliminates many otherwise qualified individuals from our workforce due to addiction and criminal records and puts a strain on health care programs like Medicaid," he said. "It is filling up our emergency rooms, our foster homes and our cemeteries."

As Sessions spoke, a small group of protesters chanted and waved signs outside to protest him and other members of the Trump administration for their stance on issues ranging from health care to immigration.

Among them was Karen Showalter, who described herself as a mother from Carlisle and member of the political activism group Tuesdays with Toomey. She held a sign reading, in Spanish, "The rights of immigrants are human rights."

Showalter said she joined the protest to express her stance against issues like "the politics of hate" and what she described as militarization of police. She also criticized the notion of combating the opiate epidemic through law enforcement channels as opposed to through reforms to the health care system.

Other critics have similarly taken issue with what they say is a lack of focus on treatment in the Trump administration's approach to addressing drug addiction. On Friday, Sessions expressed support for people currently undergoing or seeking treatment, but said prevention and law enforcement are also crucial to finding a long-term solution.

"Treatment is important. In some cases, treatment can help break the cycle of addiction and crime and get people back on their feet. But treatment cannot be our only policy," Sessions said.

Sessions' message Friday mirrored that of similar addresses he has given in other cities this week during what President Donald Trump has dubbed Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week and National Gang Violence Prevention Week. 

In related news this week, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro on Tuesday disclosed the names of pharmaceutical companies currently under investigation for their methods of distributing opioids.

The full text of Sessions' prepared remarks is available on the Justice Department's website.

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Jennifer Wentz

Jennifer Wentz

Jennifer Wentz covers Lancaster County, York County, financial services, taxation and legal services. Have a tip or question for her? Email her at jwentz@cpbj.com. Follow her on Twitter, @jenni_wentz.

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