“Through persistent and coordinated action by federal, state, and local authorities, together with the assistance of medical professionals and other leaders in our community, we can put a stop to the spread of opioids and their wake of destruction.”
Last year in the United States, more than 72,000 people died from drug overdose, and more than two-thirds of those deaths involved opioids.
Those numbers are tragic and devastating: Nearly 130 Americans died every single day last year from opioid-related overdoses. That’s more than died from traffic accidents or firearms. In addition to the deaths, many more Americans—approximately 11 million people—regularly misuse opioids. The despair wrought by opioid addiction, on both the addicted and their families, is immeasurable.
Georgians have not escaped the devastating effects of the opioid crisis. In 2017, drug overdoses in the state increased by 16 percent, with nearly 1,500 people dying from drug overdoses—most of those involving opioids. The people of the Southern District of Georgia, whom I serve as United States Attorney, sadly know the scourge of this public health crisis. Outside of metro Atlanta, Richmond County and Chatham County have the highest rates of opiate misuse in Georgia.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently declared that the opioid epidemic is the deadliest drug crisis in American history. Accordingly, he directed all United States Attorneys to use every available tool to combat this deadly epidemic. The United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Georgia is committed to this mission. We are using our authority in criminal and civil enforcement to pursue illegal street gangs and dealers who peddle poison in our communities, along with targeting corrupt doctors, pharmacists, and other medical professionals who abuse their positions of trust.
We are making progress. For example, our office recently charged two defendants with selling the deadly synthetic opioid Fentanyl in a dose that killed a 32-year-old Brunswick woman. The victim purchased the drugs from the two defendants and was found dead the next day in her parents’ home by her 5-year-old-daughter.
Our office also recently brought another doctor, George Mack Bird, III, to justice for his role in illegally prescribing massive amounts of opioids. Bird owned medical practices in Eastman and Dublin, Georgia, where prescription opioids and other drugs were sold to patients for cash and prescribed without legitimate medical purpose. Bird pled guilty to two federal felonies and recently was sentenced to 100 months in federal prison. He also forfeited $2.7 million and five parcels of land, all proceeds of his drug crimes.
These are just two examples of recent criminal prosecutions against street dealers and medical professionals for their role in the opioid epidemic. During the past year, we have prosecuted numerous other defendants for dealing these dangerous drugs.
In addition to criminal prosecutions, our office has zealously pursued stiff civil penalties against individuals and health care entities who violate our federal drug laws. In a little more than 12 months, prosecutors in the Southern District of Georgia have secured civil penalties against more doctors, pharmacies, and individuals than all other years in our district’s history combined. As one notable example, we recently reached a civil settlement totaling $4.1 million with Effingham Health System to resolve allegations that hospital staff failed to prevent opioids from being transferred to non-prescribers, and for failing to timely report the suspected diversion. We have obtained numerous other resolutions against other medical professionals from unlawful prescriptions of opioids.
While our progress is notable, we have much work to do—and we must do it together. In the coming months, our office will conduct roundtable discussions and training sessions with individuals and entities who often encounter the lethal consequences of opioids, including meeting with our state and local partners, medical examiners, and other community leaders. We also will reach out to the leadership of major hospitals in the Southern District of Georgia, seeking their cooperation in our effort to stem the tide of the opioid epidemic. To help implement and organize our strategy to reduce the opioid threat, I have designated an Assistant United States Attorney to serve as the district’s opioid coordinator.
The opioid epidemic has inflicted an unprecedented toll of death, addiction, and suffering across our community and country. I am confident, however, that we can win the battle against this terrible crisis if we work together. Through persistent and coordinated action by federal, state, and local authorities, together with the assistance of medical professionals and other leaders in our community, we can put a stop to the spread of opioids and their wake of destruction.
If we hope to turn this tide, we can do no less.
Bobby L. Christine is the United States Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia.