DEA chief on opioids: "It scares the hell out of me"

President Trump has given a new commission 90 days to come up with ideas to address the deadliest drug crisis in American history. More than 52,000 people died of a drug overdose in 2015, mostly from heroin and other opioids.

Opioid overdose deaths have more than quadrupled nationwide since 1999 but the devastation has been most severe in parts of New England, the Midwest and Appalachia, reports CBS News correspondent Tony Dokoupil. 

In Kentucky, that means paramedics who used to go days without an overdose are now lucky to go just a few hours. Paramedic Mary Taylor rushes to as many as 25 drug overdoses in a single day.

Asked whether she thinks the overdoses have peaked, she said she wasn’t sure.

“I mean, it couldn’t get much worse,” Taylor said.

But on this day, an overdose came to her. Taylor joined a team trying revive a young man driven to the hospital in the back of a green sedan. The patient arrived unconscious and barely breathing, but just minutes later he walked out on his own. What happened was a rescue: paramedics, sensing a heroin overdose, gave the man naloxone, a drug that stops the effects of opioids.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to arrest or enforce or prosecute our way out of most social ills,” Drug Enforcement Administration administrator Chuck Rosenberg said in an interview you’ll see only on “CBS This Morning.”

ctm-0331-dea-chuck-rosenberg.jpg

Drug Enforcement Administration administrator Chuck Rosenberg 

CBS News

Rosenberg blames the epidemic’s rising toll on a change in use. While deaths from painkillers have plateaued at about 17,500 a year, deaths from substitutes like heroin and potent synthetic opioids have surged to 22,500.
 
“I gotta tell you, it scares the hell out of me,” Rosenberg said, adding, “these things can be lethal, believe it or not, to the touch.”

In another era, the DEA would have responded with force alone. But in late 2015, Rosenberg launched a 360-degree strategy that blends traditional police work with public education.

“Changing behavior is tough. But we have to keep at it,” Rosenberg said. “We have to talk to middle and high school kids. … And we just have to be relentless about it.”

Louisville is one of the program’s “pilot” cities.

“It really affects all parts of the city, all socioeconomic classes, all races,” said Jim Scott, the agent in charge of the DEA’s Louisville office.

“Have you seen a reduction in overdoses since the program began?” Dokoupil asked.

“No, we haven’t. The numbers have actually increased,” Scott said. In a single four day stretch in February, 151 overdoses rocked the city.

“It hurts. Yes, it hurts. Because they’re not just spikes, they’re people,” Rosenberg said.

Near the end of another day in Louisville, Taylor would welcome relief, but she’s guarded about President Trump’s chances of providing it.

“Good luck!” she said. “We’re all looking for a way to do it, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

The DEA believes it has slowed the opioid crisis, though not yet stopped it. President Trump has repeatedly promised to do even more, but so far his administration has been short on specifics. Critics say Trump’s new commission to study the problem is just more talk.