Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke to a crowd of officers at the Columbus Police Academy on Wednesday, saying the country "must create a culture that is hostile to drug abuse."
During his speech, Sessions unveiled a pilot program to investigate health care fraud and drug prescriptions that contribute to the nation's opioid epidemic. The Justice Department will appoint 12 federal prosecutors in cities across the country who will focus on investigating in areas particularly hard hit by the crisis.
The "Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit" will rely on data to root out pill mills and prosecute health care providers who abuse opioid prescriptions.
"If you are a doctor illegally prescribing opioids for profit, or a pharmacist letting these pills walk out the door onto the streets based on prescriptions you know are obtained under false pretenses, we're coming after you," Sessions said.
Sessions said that on average, one person in Columbus dies of a drug overdose every day. Statewide, eight Ohioans die every day from accidental overdoses.
The program also marked the Justice Department's focus on enforcement, rather than drug treatment.
"Treatment alone is not enough. Treatment often comes too late," Sessions said. "By the time many people receive treatment, they, their families and communities have already suffered."
— Adora Namigadde (@adorakn) August 2, 2017
"If you can focus on prevention, then people never get addicted," Sessions said.
Before Sessions got on stage, Mayor Andrew Ginther spoke about the Franklin County "Opiate Action Plan" that city offficials announced in June. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, meanwhile, praised Sessions for his work so far during the Trump administration.
During the speech, protesters from the People's Justice Project gathered outside the Academy to decry the Attorney General's policies on issues spanning from drug treatment to police reform.
Organizer Tammy Al Saada said Sessions is not investing in options that provide long-term safety and healing for communities.
"We've been standing up and asking for reinvestment in the things that keep us safe and heal our communities," Al Saada said. "We've asked again and again for investment in trauma recovery and healing."
Protesters held up signs that said "Fund Treatment Not Prisons" and "Jobs Not Jails." They raised concerns with Sessions' plan to revive "tough on crime" policies that marked the 1980s crack epidemic.
"I went to prison on crack cocaine," Al Saada says. "I recovered on the county jail floor."
In May, Sessions told federal prosecutors to pursue the most serious charges possible against most drug suspects, a change undoing Obama administration policies aimed at easing prison overcrowding and showing leniency for lower-level drug offenders.
Sessions, who served as a U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama during the '80s, said during his speech that he helped support a drug court in Mobile.
But Al Saada says the crack epidemic in the '80s didn't get the same attention as the opioid epidemic, leaving many people out of the conversation.
"We know they're going to go into this room and talk about the opioid epidemic in rural communities across our state and across our country," Al Saada said. "But this epidemic affects more than just rural communities."