Sessions: US prosecutors will help addiction-ravaged cities

COLUMBUS — The Justice Department will dispatch 12 federal prosecutors to cities ravaged by addiction who will focus exclusively on investigating health care fraud and opioid scams that are fueling the nation’s drug abuse epidemic, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Wednesday (Aug. 1).

He unveiled the pilot program during a speech in hard-hit Ohio, where eight people a day die of accidental overdoses.

“In recent years some of the government officials in our country I think have mistakenly sent mixed messages about the harmfulness of drugs,” Sessions said. “So let me say: We cannot capitulate intellectually or morally unto this kind of rampant drug abuse. We must create a culture that’s hostile to drug abuse.”

Sessions said the group of prosecutors he has dubbed the “opioid fraud and abuse detection unit” will rely on data in their efforts to root out pill mills and track down doctors and other health care providers who illegally prescribe or distribute narcotics such as fentanyl and other powerful painkillers.

Such prescription opioids are behind the deadliest drug overdose epidemic in U.S. history. More than 52,000 Americans died of overdoses in 2015 — a record — and experts believe the numbers have continued to rise. Sessions has made aggressive prosecutions of drug crime a top priority, saying the deadly overdoses necessitate a return to tougher tactics.

The Health Department says opioid-related overdoses killed 3,050 Ohioans in 2015, with that number expected to jump sharply for 2016.

In June, the coroner serving the greater Columbus area said overdose deaths through April of this year rose to 173, a 66 percent jump from a year ago.

“That’s 173 mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers,” said Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther, a Democrat who said state and federal help is needed to fight the epidemic.

The prosecutors will be based in U.S. attorney’s offices in the Middle District of Florida; the Eastern District of Michigan; the Northern District of Alabama; the Eastern District of Tennessee; Nevada; the Eastern District of Kentucky; Maryland; the Western District of Pennsylvania; the Southern District of Ohio; the Eastern District of California; the Middle District of North Carolina; and the Southern District of West Virginia.

Some Democrats criticized Sessions’ proposal, saying more treatment options are needed to fight the epidemic.

The budget proposals of President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans and efforts to repeal Obamacare, including the expansion of Medicaid, “would likely make the opioid epidemic worse,” said Mandy McClure, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee.

In May, Sessions instructed the nation’s federal prosecutors to bring the toughest charges possible against most crime suspects. Critics assailed the move as a return to failed drug-war policies that unduly affected minorities and filled prisons with nonviolent offenders.

The announcement was a reversal of Obama-era policies that is sure to send more people to prison and for much longer terms.

Advocates warned the shift would crowd federal prisons and strain Justice Department resources. Some involved in criminal justice during the drug war feared the human impact would look similar.


According to Report Out This Week, 142 Americans Die from Drug Overdoses Each Day

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) applauded several recommendations from the Administration’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, and called for quick action and additional investment to help communities on the frontlines of the epidemic.

“This report is encouraging because a number of these proposals already have the support of Republicans and Democrats in Congress,” said Brown. “This report cannot be the end of the conversation – we need to work together to turn its recommendations into action. That means significant resources and investments so those on the frontlines have the funding they need to make change in their communities. I will keep working with Senator Portman and the Administration to make sure Ohio communities have our support in the fight against opioid addiction.”

In March, Brown applauded the formation of the Commission. Several of the Commission’s recommendations are proposals Brown has worked on, including:

· Eliminating an outdated cap on the number of beds at substance abuse treatment facilities that can be covered under Medicaid. Current law limits use of Medicaid funding for residential mental health or substance abuse treatment to facilities with just 16 beds or less, which prevents many Ohioans from getting the help they need. Brown has legislation with Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) to lift the cap so Ohioans can get care. The Commission’s report notes this is one of the quickest ways to get people into treatment.

· Increasing access to medication-assisted treatment (MAT). Brown has worked on legislation to expand use of MAT, which was included in the Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act (CARA), which Brown supported. He has also cosponsored The Recovery Enhancement for Addiction Treatment Act (TREAT Act) to further expand access to this effective form of treatment.

· Increasing access to naloxone. Brown has called on the government to boost funding to help first responders maintain a supply of naloxone and supported CARA, which authorized funding for overdose reversal drugs.

· Developing better fentanyl detection devices for local, state and federal law enforcement, and supporting legislation Brown is supporting to stop the flow of synthetic opioids through the U.S. Postal Service. Brown teamed up with Senator Portman on a pair of bills to help block the flow of fentanyl to Ohio communities, the INTERDICT and STOP Acts. The STOP Act, which Brown is cosponsoring, would help USPS detect these drugs. Brown’s INTERDICT ACT provides Customs and Border agents with additional resources to screen for fentanyl safely and effectively.

The New York Times Theater

On the Front Lines of Ohio’s Heroin Crisis: Playwrights

New plays are portraying and exploring opioid addiction, using the theater industry’s response to the AIDS epidemic as a model.


AUG. 4, 2017

KENT, Ohio — An epidemic that fills coffin after coffin with people in their 20s. Activist-minded theater-makers who work furiously between funerals to bring the tragedy to life onstage. Audience members who express fear that if nothing changes, they or someone they love will be gone soon, too.

For those who remember New York during the AIDS crisis, these scenes conjure heartbreaking memories of attending memorial services for friends and lovers and then watching new plays like “Angels in America” and “The Normal Heart” through tears. Yet, increasingly for many people across Ohio and nationwide, the theater world’s response to an emergency health crisis isn’t history — it’s happening. The killer this time isn’t H.I.V. It’s heroin.

“In the Rust Belt, it’s a situation where everybody’s heard about it and everybody knows it’s a crisis,” said Nathan Motta, the artistic director of the Dobama Theater in Cleveland Heights. “Everybody is one or two people from somebody who is suffering.”

At least five plays about heroin abuse have been produced in northeast Ohio alone in the last year as the state’s residents grapple with the surging epidemic. This year’s overdose fatalities are set to outpace last year’s, according to the report.

Heroin-themed plays have surfaced elsewhere recently, too: at a high school in New Market, Md.; a community theater in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.; and a children’s theater in Roanoke, Va. And on Broadway this spring, the new play “Sweat” — which won the Pulitzer Prize in drama in April — featured two characters who abuse heroin in working-class Reading, Pa.

The author, Lynn Nottage, spent time there, doing research for the play and learning more about the opiod menace. She said similarities between the theatrical responses to the heroin and AIDS crises were striking.

“It was true of AIDS that a lot of breakthrough conversations surfaced when the AIDS crisis was put onstage,” said Ms. Nottage, who said her uncle had died of a heroin overdose. “It gave people an outlet and permitted them to sit in the theater spaces and have catharsis. I think it’s going to be true of the heroin epidemic.”

For Emelia Sherin of Warren, Ohio, it was after the eighth person from her high school died that she and a friend, Zach Manthey, 22, decided to write a play. In working-class Trumbull County, where Warren is, there were 82 overdoses, 10 of them fatal, in two weeks this year.

Onstage, “when you have someone in front of you, showing you the effect that this epidemic has, it opens your eyes,” said Ms. Sherin, 20. “Confrontation is key to communication.”

The result is “(In)dependent: The Heroin Project,” a drama based on some 50 interviews with heroin users, counselors, family members and others that runs through Saturday at the Akron Civic Theater. The Akron area has been particularly hard hit, with the Akron Board of Education’s recently voting to stock the anti-overdose drug Narcan in middle and high schools this fall.

Ms. Sherin and Mr. Manthey’s play is a docu-theater piece — similar in style to “The Laramie Project,” about the murder of Matthew Shepard — with characters that include a Mormon convert, a drag queen and a father in Narcotics Anonymous. Heroin itself takes the stage as a female character, “like a Siren,” Mr. Manthey said.

“When I talked to current or recovering addicts, they would compare heroin to a girl or a relationship,” said Ms. Sherin, a young woman with inquiring eyes who, seated next to the towering Mr. Manthey at Scribbles coffee shop here recently, talked about their play with seriousness and passion. “They would always refer to her as her. I asked them, ‘Why do you keep saying her?’ And they say would say, ‘Because she’s so beautiful.’”

A trailer for “How to Be a Respectable Junkie.” DobamaTheatre

At the Dobama Theater, Mr. Motta recently directed “How to Be a Respectable Junkie,” a one-man show based on interviews by the playwright, Greg Vovos, with a recovering heroin user. The Cleveland Plain Dealer called it “raw, eloquent and deeply moving.”

Although “How to Be a Respectable Junkie” closed in July, Mr. Vovos, 45, said that he hoped future productions would “put a real face on the people who are struggling.”

“If you arm people with understanding, that’s a good thing,” said Mr. Vovos, the author of two other heroin-themed plays that have been mounted in Cleveland. “Before you solve a problem, you have to wrap your mind around it.”

Portrayals of heroin frequently appear in pop culture. Heroin addicts have jolted through films like “The Panic in Needle Park” and “Trainspotting”; TV shows like “Girls” and “Orange Is the New Black”; and the Broadway musicals “Rent” (which also features H.I.V.-positive characters) and “American Idiot.”

But unlike New York or Hollywood, Ohio has a relatively low bar for those seeking to make art: Grab a script and a stage, and it’s cheap to put on a show. Community theater and college drama groups offer an expeditious outlet for artists, many of them novices. Ms. Sherin and Mr. Manthey are students at Kent State University; Mr. Vovos studied playwriting at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and works at American Greetings in suburban Cleveland.

There are important differences between the AIDS and heroin plays, of course. AIDS devastated gay New York, at the center of the theater world, and hit people in that industry particularly hard. AIDS claimed the lives of many theater artists, like the playwright Scott McPherson, who died at 33 and whose black comedy “Marvin’s Room” is now on Broadway. Many AIDS-themed plays were set in cities, while many of today’s heroin plays are about local communities and, for the most part, have not received wide exposure.

What the genres share are calls to action and awareness. The Living Theater in New York sounded an alarm about heroin abuse in 1959 when it mounted “The Connection,” Jack Gelber’s experimental and incendiary portrayal of heroin users that shocked audiences. A doctor in “The Normal Heart” says, “You’ve got to warn the living, protect the healthy, help them keep on living.”

“If you’re trying to write about the world we live in, you ignore what’s going on at your peril,” said the playwright Jonathan Tolins (“Buyer & Cellar”), who has written several plays with characters coping with AIDS and its footprint.

It’s too soon to know if heroin plays will have the lasting power of award-winning works like “Angels in America,” which is currently being revived in London with a starry cast that includes Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane. “The Normal Heart,” like “Angels,” was made into an HBO movie. The recent Broadway revival of William Finn’s musical “Falsettos,” written during the height of the AIDS crisis, received five Tony Award nominations.

In Akron, Howard Parr, the executive director of the Civic Theater, doesn’t have time to think about Tonys. He knows he’s taking a risk mounting Ms. Sherin and Mr. Manthey’s play as part of a theater project featuring topical works by local millennial writers. He’s paying the bills with escapist shows like “The Rocky Horror Show” and “The Luther Vandross Experience.”

But many members of his ticket-buying base are reeling because of heroin. Some Buckeye State businesses are having a hard time finding workers who can pass drug tests. The situation has been likened to “an ongoing terrorist attack,” as one Ohio newspaper editor recently put it.

What Mr. Parr can offer, as AIDS plays did for so many theatergoers in pain, is a kind of safe house.

“Our job as a theater is to reflect the community,” he said. “There are many things that are happy, and we will keep doing those things. But some things in the community are not happy. This is one of them.”

Follow Erik Piepenburg on Twitter: @erikpiepenburg

A version of this article appears in print on August 5, 2017, on Page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Fighting A Needle With a Pen. The New York Times Company

Donald Trump and Ryan Zinke Are Purging Climate Scientists for Telling the Truth

Dozens of senior officials have been reassigned at the Department of the Interior, including Dr. Virginia Burkett, who contributed to the IPCC reports that won the Nobel Peace Prize.

By Adam Federman

On July 19, Joel Clement, a top climate scientist and policy analyst at the Department of Interior (DOI) filed a whistle-blower complaint with the Office of Special Counsel alleging that his reassignment to an accounting position was retribution for speaking out about the dangers of climate change. Clement, who had raised the alarm about the potential catastrophic impacts of rising sea levels and warming temperatures on Native communities in Alaska, had been transferred to the Office of Natural Resources Revenue, which collects royalty checks from the fossil-fuel industry. In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Clement accused the Trump administration of choosing “silence over science.”

But Clement wasn’t the only leading climate scientist at the DOI who was targeted. As part of a radical, department-wide restructuring that Secretary Ryan Zinke has described as “probably the greatest reorganization in the history of the Department of the Interior,” at least two dozen senior executive employees have been moved to new positions. Although new administrations often shake up agency personnel, the transfers of senior officials at the DOI are unprecedented in scale and, in several cases, viewed as politically motivated or designed to intimidate staff who work on environmental issues. Zinke has defended Trump’s plan to reduce the DOI budget by $1.6 billion next year, costing roughly 4,000 employees their jobs and rolling back many of the regulations put in place by the Obama administration.

Among the initial transfers at the DOI was Dr. Virginia Burkett, the former associate director for Climate and Land Use Change at the United States Geological Survey (USGS), who contributed to several reports on climate change by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. According to interviews with several DOI employees, Burkett was originally reassigned to the office of the assistant secretary for Water and Science, which would have moved her from overseeing vital climate-science research at USGS to an as yet undefined advisory role at DOI headquarters in Washington.

Burkett, who joined the DOI in 1990 and has been at the USGS for more than 15 years, is an internationally recognized expert on climate change, sea-level rise, and coastal wetlands. She has written extensively on the impacts of climate change on coastal communities, as well as on strategies for adaptation. As an adviser to the assistant secretary for Water and Science, it’s unclear what her new role would have been. The office reports directly to newly named Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, a former high-powered lobbyist who had previously sued the DOI and whose conflicts of interest related to water-use issues have been well documented.

Matt Larsen, former associate director for Climate and Land Use Change at USGS who now heads up the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, said that, under normal circumstances, Burkett could have played an important role in shaping policy on national water-resource issues. “In her case, the reassignment was a reasonable one,” Larsen said. “It was in line with her expertise, assuming that the special adviser would have been asked to give advice about climate science and land-use-change science.” But Larsen noted that her role would ultimately be limited to serving the administration’s political agenda.

As a citizen Donald Trump dismissed climate science as a “hoax,” and as president he has continued to undermine the role of science in guiding government policy. References to global warming have been removed from government websites, and regulations designed to limit greenhouse-gas emissions—many of them promulgated through the DOI—have been reversed. Most notably, Trump pulled out of the Paris climate accord. Although Secretary Zinke paid lip service to climate change during his confirmation hearings, the DOI seems to have fallen into line with the administration’s overall agenda of suppressing climate science. Just a week before Clement blew the whistle, another USGS climate scientist was told not to attend a tour of Glacier National Park with Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg.

According to a leaked draft of a USGS science-guidance memo obtained by The Nation, the word “climate” is quietly being scrubbed from various program titles and research initiatives. Under the Trump budget, the Climate and Land Use Change mission area has already been renamed the Land Resources mission area, suggesting that climate-science research will no longer be a priority. Funding for climate-science centers, which are on the front lines of helping regional and local natural-resource managers adapt to climate change, will be reduced from $25 million to $17.4 million, and the agency is preparing for the possibility that four of those centers will be shuttered. The memo instructs program managers and scientists to focus on a small subset of existing projects and research priorities rather than seeking funding for any new initiatives.

This larger context aside, a DOI employee with knowledge of Burkett’s reassignment said the move raised a number of particular red flags. Burkett’s special advisory role was a newly created position, in an office that was not yet fully staffed. Typically, the employee said, assistant secretaries like to choose their own advisors. Anne Castle who served as assistant secretary for water and ccience under Obama, confirmed that it was unusual to name special advisers before having the leadership team in place. Moreover, unlike many of the other Senior Executive Service employees who were transferred, an immediate replacement for Burkett was not named. Doug Beard, another USGS scientist, is now serving as acting associate director for Climate and Land Use Change, but it is unclear whether the position will ultimately be filled or eliminated. According to another DOI employee, the reassignment was a “signal to us that the mission area not only might be renamed but might be removed.”

The DOI declined to respond to specific questions about Burkett’s reassignment, but said the personnel moves were being “conducted to better serve the taxpayer and the Department’s operations.”

As a citizen Donald Trump dismissed climate science as a “hoax,” and as president he has continued to undermine the role of science in guiding government policy.

Notified of her reassignment in mid-June, Burkett was given just 15 days to accept the new position, resign, or retire. But instead she was able to negotiate a departure from the Senior Executive Service, the upper echelon of federal government employees, and return to her previously held position as chief scientist of the Climate and Land Use Change mission area, taking a pay cut in the process.

Reached by phone as she was driving from Virginia to Louisiana, where she’ll be stationed, Burkett said she preferred not to speculate on the reasons for her reassignment. “I’m sure it would have been a different role,” she said. “The office has a different mission.” Burkett, along with two other DOI employees, did express concern that no one had yet been named to fill her old job as Associate Director for Climate and Land Use Change at USGS, a key leadership role. “There are hiring freezes presently, and I’m just unclear about how and if the position will be refilled,” Burkett said.

Adam Federman is a reporting fellow with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. He is the author of Fasting and Feasting: The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray.

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions, left, talks with Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine on Wednesday at the Columbus Police Academy in Columbus, where they both spoke about the opioid epidemic. General Jeff Sessions, left, talks with Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine on Wednesday at the Columbus Police Academy in Columbus, where they both spoke about the opioid epidemic. Jay LaPrete | Associated Press

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins

Associated Press