President Donald Trump noted a decline in drug prosecution as he spoke to reporters about the United States' opioid "epidemic" Tuesday, attaching a criminal justice-related element to an issue in which a White House commission previously made mostly health-related recommendations.
"At the end of 2016, there were 23 percent fewer federal prosecutions than in 2011, so they looked at this scourge and they let it go by. We're not letting it go by," said Trump to reporters from his private club in Bedminster, New Jersey, where he was receiving a briefing from Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price.
"The average sentence for a convicted federal drug offender decreased 20 percent from 2009 to 2016," he added, noting he "promised to fight this battle during his campaign."
Just over a week ago, the President's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made a series of recommendations on the topic focused on treatment to combat addiction and regulating prescriptions to prevent abuse. The panel also suggested Trump "declare a national emergency under either the Public Health Service Act or the Stafford Act."
Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced he was sending a group of federal prosecutors to a number of cities affected by rampant abuse to investigate drug crimes. The policy of Trump's White House predecessor Barack Obama was to relax sentencing for nonviolent drug-related offenses.
Trump addressed the severity of the issue Tuesday, saying "nobody is safe" and encouraging a focus on preventative measures.
The best way to prevent drug addiction and overdose is to prevent people from abusing drugs in the first place," said Trump. "If they don't start, they won't have a problem. If they do start, it's awfully tough to get off.
"Maybe by talking to youth and telling them, 'No good, really bad for you in every way,'" he continued. "But if they don't start, it will never be a problem."
Nationally, the rate of opioid deaths is on the rise -- every day 62 Americans die of an opioid overdose, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). And the Garden State, like many states across the country, has been hit particularly hard. A study released yesterday reports that the New Jersey's opioid death rate is actually understated.
The University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy examined death certificates and found that nationally, opioid- and heroin-involved death rates are more than 20 percent greater than reported rates, and opioid death rates were "considerably understated in Pennsylvania, Indiana, New Jersey and Arizona."
In February, Christie passed one of the toughest new laws in the country to combat the opioid epidemic. The law reduces the supply for opioid drugs prescribed to patients from 30 days to five days.
On CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday, the New Jersey governor said that the opioid epidemic is responsible for a "9/11-scale loss of life every three weeks."
"If that's not a national health emergency, I don't know what is," said Christie, whose commission on the issue wrote that "our citizens are dying" and that "the opioid epidemic we are facing is unparalleled."
Trump, who frequently talked about the drug epidemic during the campaign, has been criticized for remaining largely quiet about the crisis as president. Last week, in Huntington, West Virginia -- the state with the highest rate of drug overdoses in the country -- Trump only mentioned the epidemic once.
"You have a big problem in West Virginia, and we are going to solve that problem," said Trump.
But Christie said he's confident the White House will adopt the recommendations put forward by the commission.
"I'm convinced that the president is committed to this," said Christie during a conference call with the commission. Their final report is scheduled to be released this fall.