HHS official: ‘Emphasis shouldn’t be on the death penalty’ for drug dealers

President Trump’s three-point plan to combat the nation’s opioid epidemic includes treatment, prevention and stiff penalties for traffickers — up to and including the death penalty. The man in a position to push for that policy is U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Acting Regional Director Dennis Gonzalez. He joins Correspondent Michael Hill.

Hill: Tell me here, the president, before he announced his 3-point plan, he made a specific request of prosecutors to seek the death penalty for drug traffickers who cause death to those they sell their product to. How’s that going to work?

Gonzalez: Well, the emphasis shouldn’t be on the death penalty. What the president is calling on is for law enforcement to do the job that it needs to do to get these drugs from coming into our communities, from coming into this country. So, it’s a whole array of law enforcement opportunities, not just the death penalty. Of course, each case is different. Prosecutors have the discretion of doing what they need to do in order to bring these people to justice. What we want to do is make sure that the pushers, the drug kingpins, that the people who are bringing drugs into this country pay the price and are accountable for what they are doing, which is leading to this epidemic and it’s killing so many thousands of people.

Hill: What the president announced on Monday, how different is it than what the government was already doing before his announcement?

Gonzalez: Well, since he became president, the president has made this a number one priority of his administration. He’s the first president to really make this a number one priority. And so, it’s a 3-point plan which is; prevention to prevent people from getting addicted; treatment for those who, unfortunately, do end up with addiction, provide them with the services and the treatment necessary; and then the third is the law enforcement piece. He wants to bring it all together in one big strong affirmative program campaign against this epidemic.

Hill: He wants to spend a lot more money on education and awareness. That’s the prevention side. The police chief in Denville, Christopher Wagner, told me on Monday, he said, “we’d lose this if we don’t prevent. If we don’t have prevention and if we don’t succeed at prevention, we lose.”

Gonzalez: Absolutely, and it’s also much cheaper to prevent something than to treat it. So, that’s why we’re focusing a lot on prevention, which involves a law enforcement piece to prevent the drugs from getting into our communities. Education, awareness, retraining doctors, letting doctors know that I have a huge back problem and my doctor prescribed percocet, and he told me, ‘you know, this was what I was trained to do’ and he’s a relatively young doctor. Doctors are just trained to give medicine when a person is in pain.

Hill: And you know, along those lines, Mr. Gonzales, we just had a discussion in the newsroom about this, and your example points to this, as well. Is it time to retrain doctors? Is it time to retrain those who are in medical school to start looking for and treating the root cause of something, as opposed to someone like you coming in saying, I have severe back issues and a doctor writes a prescription?

Gonzalez: Well, yes. That’s part of the whole package, the whole plan, if you will, of the president is to get doctors to understand that there are other methods and other alternatives to just prescribing pain medication.

Hill: I saw in the plan, too, that the government is going to pursue a vaccine to prevent opioid addiction, as well?

Gonzalez: Well, that’s one of the things that we’re looking at at the federal level. The NIH is very proactive in looking at different alternatives and everything is on the table. We’re looking at different ways to solve this problem.

Hill: Including limiting, at the federal level, Medicaid, Medicare programs of the federal health programs, limiting how much doctors can prescribe in terms of opioids?

Gonzalez: Well, what we want to do is make sure that doctors, at the federal level, who either work for the federal government or who prescribe through Medicaid and Medicare, that they’re using best practices to prescribe what’s appropriate to their patients.

Hill: How much is all this going to cost, and is it already in the budget to take care of what the president has laid out?

Gonzalez: Well, the president has already spent over $450 million so far on opioid program. He has requested from Congress $13 billion. Congress has already approved $6 billion, so we’re working with Congress and trying to make sure that money gets spent properly.

Hill: I was with law enforcement on Monday as the president was laying out this plan. The president says he wants to stop it. He wants to end the drug trafficking, the addiction crisis in this country, and several law enforcement who were with the organization, Law Enforcement Against Drugs, LEAD as it’s called, heard what he had to say and said you’re not going to stop this. How do you respond to that?

Gonzalez: Well, you can’t be that negative. Even if the premise is that you can’t stop it, you still have to try. There’s 60,000 people who die a year. In New Jersey alone it’s over 2,000 people*. So, we can’t say, well because this might not work, let’s not try it. We have to try everything to try to end this scourge, this epidemic.

Hill: And money is no issue in a fight like this?

Gonzalez: Well, money is always an issue. But, the president has made a commitment to invest what he can and what must be invested to make this program a success. And again, as I mentioned earlier, he’s requested $13 billion from Congress, he’s already been given $6 billion. We’re working with Congress on putting that money out.

Hill: And how much can the states expect? States like New Jersey, states like New York, can they expect to get a good portion from the federal government in this effort?

Gonzalez: They will. As soon as the particulars are worked out with Congress, the expenditure plans are worked out, we expect monies to be going out to the states.

Hill: Mr. Gonzales, you’ll have to come back and see us and give us an update.

Gonzalez:  I would love to. Thank you for the opportunity.

*Update 3/22/2018: The original interview indicated that there were 20,000 people who died from opioid overdoses per year in New Jersey, the correct figure is 2,000.

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