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Full transcript: DEA Administrator Anne Milgram on "Face the Nation," December 19, 2021

Full interview: DEA Administrator Anne Milgram on "Face the Nation"
Full interview: DEA Administrator Anne Milgram on "Face the Nation" 18:50

The following is the full transcript of an interview with DEA Administrator Anne Milgram that aired Sunday, December 19, 2021, on "Face the Nation."

MARGARET BRENNAN: We now turn to the growing opioid crisis, and we want to welcome to the program and Anne Milgram, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Good morning to you.

DEA ADMINISTRATOR ANNE MILGRAM: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Why is it so hard to cut off the flow of fentanyl, which is the drug that seems to be fueling these overdoses?

MILGRAM: Well, that's- that's correct. Fentanyl right now is driving the overdose epidemic that we're seeing in the United States, and fentanyl is a different drug threat than we've seen before. It's synthetic, meaning that it's manmade. It's made of chemicals. Right now, those chemicals are largely sourced from China. They're going to the Mexican criminal drug cartels that are then mass producing, often at an industrial scale fentanyl. Fentanyl- tiny, tiny amounts can be deadly. The CDC reports that two milligrams can be a deadly dose. It is a miniscule amount, the amount they could fit on the tip of your pen. So it's cheap to make. It's relatively easy to make. Tiny quality quantities of fentanyl are incredibly potent and addictive and can be deadly, and so it's a new threat. There's also an unlimited amount that the cartels can actually make. So when I was starting as a prosecutor, cocaine comes from cocoa, right? Comes from cocoa leaves. You've got heroin coming from poppies. You had to wait for those plants to grow. This is totally different. All a criminal act or needs are some chemicals and a little bit of know how. And they're able to produce one of the most deadly substances on the planet.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Are people seeking it out as a drug, or is it just something that they're surprised is mixed into the drugs they're seeking?

MILGRAM: So what we're seeing now, overwhelmingly, and we just finished a major United States takedown across the country over the last two and a half months where we were focused on the deadly fake pills that the cartels are making and that are being moved into the United States at unprecedented amounts. And so what happens is that the cartels are mass producing these pills in Mexico, mostly, and they're making them look like they're real oxycodone, like they're real hydrocodone, Percocet, Adderall, and then they're bringing them flooding them into the United States and falsely advertised them, marketing them as though they were real pharmaceuticals. So you have a teen on Snapchat and an older American who's looking for pain medicine that they might be able to get cheaper online. And they're finding these pills- Americans believe that they're getting the actual pharmaceutical pill. They're not, what they're getting is fentanyl. And that is why we're seeing 100,000 overdose deaths this year. Sixty-four thousand of those are attributed to synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

MARGARET BRENNAN: This week, President Biden signed two executive orders to fight drug trafficking, and it allowed for a crackdown on fentanyl producers, particularly in China. So as someone trying to prosecute and- and get those who are bringing these chemicals in, poison you called it, being pumped into America. What tools does this give you now? I mean, how do you get Beijing to hand over the bad guys?

MILGRAM: Well, let- let me start by saying that China needs to do more. There are hundreds of thousands of unregulated chemical companies in China that are sending these drugs, these precursor chemicals that can be made into fentanyl, and even the prior chemicals. We call them pre-precursor- pre-precursor chemicals. And they're advertising, those chemical companies are advertising, you can use this to make fentanyl. So we know what they're doing. China knows what they're doing. They need to do more. What the president's EO does, his executive order does is it gives us new tools, particularly around illicit finance. One of the things that drives drug trafficking worldwide is money laundering, taking those profits and laundering them through different means. We see a lot of that illicit finance happening both in China and in Mexico. So these are new tools that we can use. The other EO by the president set up an organization across government focused on transnational organized crime, that is narcotics trafficking. It's also other types of organized crime that we see worldwide. But a big part of that revolves around narcotics trafficking. So those tools are really important for us to have.

MARGARET BRENNAN: The State Department put out a $5 million reward on the head of one man in particular in China, someone that the Justice Department also filed charges against; a Chinese national. He's outside your reach, you can't get him.

MILGRAM: There's a couple of things that are important to know about that. First of all, that's a DEA investigation. Those charges were brought in Texas as a result of the work that DEA has done around fentanyl and fentanyl precursors. So that individual, Yen, for 20 years he's been trafficking first in steroids, recently in fentanyl and fentanyl precursors. So that $5 million reward is to help us bring him to justice in the United States. The laws we have in the United States under the Controlled Substances Act, under the narco terrorism statutes, they let us reach foreign actors who have a nexus to the United. States who are drug trafficking worldwide with a nexus to the US so we can investigate and charge those individuals,

MARGARET BRENNAN: But now that there's cryptocurrency being used rather than just traditional bank accounts, doesn't that make your job harder?

MILGRAM: No question about it. So cryptocurrency is one way that we see drug traffickers and these major criminal networks operating also on the darknet. We did a major takedown recently with Interpol worldwide looking at the darknet and finding leads that we can find. So, one of the key parts about my job now is to really do everything I can to modernize DEA, to make sure that our incredible men and women worldwide have the tools and the technologies that they need to meet this moment, this historic, unprecedented moment of 100,000 American deaths. And what we know are major criminal networks that are making billions of dollars by trafficking in drugs.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So that's the supply, when it comes to the demand. People are seeking this out, as you said, seeking out some kind of drug even if they're accidentally getting fentanyl. The social media companies, you have said, are very much a conduit, Tik Tok, Snapchat. How- are people seeking out these drugs intentionally on these social media platforms? And what are you doing to get the companies to crack down?

MILGRAM: Well, the social media conversation, I think, is a critical one. Because drug traffickers are harnessing social media because it is accessible, they're able to access millions of Americans and it is anonymous and they're able to sell these fake pills that are not what they say they are. They're able to sell those and to lie on those social media sites about that. So we know every single day across America that drugs are being sold on these social media sites Snapchat, TikTok, Facebook. When you go on your smartphone, and all of us have smartphones today, they can be in a child's bedroom in someone's car. Wherever you are, Those traffickers are there too. And the minute you open up one of those social media apps, they're there and they're waiting. They want to make it one click to get drugs into people's hands in the United States of America. We know what's happening, and so do the social media companies. So my very strong point on this is that yesterday in our takedown, 76 of our cases are directly linked to social media websites where there is extensive narcotics trafficking happening.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you're building a case against the social media companies?

MILGRAM: We've built a case against the- at this moment, the criminal drug networks. And we've drawn the line- this- in this enforcement takedown. And I think it's critical to point this out that we've drawn that line between the Mexican criminal cartels that are mass producing illicit fentanyl and making these fake pills and pouring it into the United States. We've drawn the line between them and the networks that are selling these drugs and killing Americans through social media. And so what we're doing is investigating. We want to understand everything about how this is happening. And of course, the social media companies need to do more. They need to be proactive. If we know what's happening, we know they know what's happening well.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And they- they have said investigations have found there that they are handling it, but their algorithms do redirect people if they are seeking something out.

MILGRAM: There is no question that they know that these social media- and we released yesterday a code sort of the codes that are used. So for example, on Snapchat, what Snapchat does is they have 24 hour stories that then disappear. And so what a drug dealer does is they go on to that Snapchat. They create a new story. They put in one of the emojis that signals that they're a drug dealer and then they have people coming in and they're sort of marketing these fake pills through that method. At the end of that 24 hours Snapchat takes it down. It is a haven. It is a haven for drug traffickers.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So this is- these are emojis. These are symbols and codes. This isn't like someone going on, How do I buy fentanyl?

MILGRAM: It could be both, but- but remember also that people aren't looking for fentanyl. Part of what we see happening here, we see- I talked a little bit about, as part of this enforcement takedown, there was a 15 year-old in Idaho who was looking for an Oxy pill. He went on Snapchat. He bought a single Oxy pill. And he died. And he thought it was Oxy. It was fentanyl. He didn't know that. So when you look at people searching, they're not searching for fentanyl. Overwhelmingly, they're searching for Oxy, for Xanax, for Adderall. And again, there are a lot of Americans who believe that you could buy a legitimate pharmaceutical pill online. And it's critical, especially at the holidays when we know risk factors go up, it's critical that everyone understand that one pill can kill parents and family members, talk to their kids, to-to friends, to colleagues that they understand the harm that is out there right now.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So what would you tell parents who are listening at home terrified at what you're describing? What can they actually do?

MILGRAM: Well, they need to sit and talk with their kids. The research is clear that when parents talk to children, drug use goes down in half. And we know that there are kids who don't understand these risks. We know that there are older Americans as well, all of us don't understand this risk. This is a new threat, so people shouldn't be expected to know it. We need to help people understand. One pill can kill. The only medicine that they should take is what's prescribed to them personally and filled at a local pharmacy. And also, the other piece of this is what we see dealers and- and drug trafficking networks doing now, is that they're lacing other drugs with fentanyl. They're releasing cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, even- there was a case recently in Connecticut with marijuana being laced with fentanyl. So, no drugs are safe right now because fentanyl is being put into those drugs because it's highly addictive, because people come back again and again.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But then they're killing their customers unintentionally–

MILGRAM: They're killing their customers–

MARGARET BRENNAN: When you talk about the supply coming into the United States, we know since the beginning of the Biden administration, there has been a surge of migrants crossing the border. A lot of these drug cartels also traffic in people, in humans. What are you doing, what is the DEA portion of that story at the US border to stop that?

MILGRAM: This is a really important conversation to have because criminal drug networks are ruthless and they will stop at nothing to get these drugs into the United States. The profit margin on synthetic drugs like fentanyl is enormous, and so they will do whatever it takes to get those drugs in. We have seen, since 2015 when the fentanyl threat really started in the United States since 2015, year after year. 2016, that amount went up. 2017, the amount of fentanyl coming into the United States went up; 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021. We have to understand that there is an unlimited amount of synthetic fentanyl that the criminal drug cartels in Mexico can make, and that they will stop at nothing to get them into the United States and to flood our communities with this poison.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Why isn't interdiction working?

MILGRAM: It is working in one sense, which is that, we've taken off 20 million fake pills this year. We estimate at the DEA lab that four in 10 of those pills are potentially deadly. We've taken off 15,000 pounds of fentanyl this year. That is enough potentially lethal doses to kill every single American. So we are doing a lot of work to make sure that we are taking those drugs off the street. It is also and you see this from the work we did yesterday. We're focused on tracking those overdose deaths and working back to understand the full network from Mexico to Main Street that is causing harm and is killing Americans. It's not enough for us to do one drug trafficker here and there. We have to be targeted at the entire network so that we can take them down. We can take advantage of the executive order the president just signed on illicit finance. So whether somebody is processing chemicals in China, mass producing these drugs in Mexico, involved in money laundering and illicit finance, we need to take them down as part of these organizations.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So, tensions between the DEA and the Mexican government are not new. This is always a difficult conversation when it comes to fentanyl, when it comes to what you're talking about right now, which is just a flood across the border. What is the current Mexican government doing when you ask them to help you?

MILGRAM: Well, to me, we're in the middle- we're in the middle of an unprecedented moment, 100,000 Americans have died. That's more Americans than died from car crashes. That's more Americans that died from car crashes and gun violence in the past year. This is- it is unprecedented- unprecedented and it is tragic. So to me, DEA has to do everything we can to meet this moment. We have to do more than we've ever done before, and so does Mexico, and so does China. And so to me, this is about saving lives. This is about. These drugs are killing Americans at record rates, and we have to do everything we possibly can. So we work with the Mexican government wherever we can. The administration has a new high level security dialogue with Mexico. And my message to all of our partners is that the DEA is standing up to do more to protect American communities, and we need Mexico to do more and we need China to do more as well.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But then in America's backyard, you have failing states or failed states. You've got Venezuela, you've got Haiti. These are havens for drug trafficking. Isn't that all making your job that much harder? And doesn't the administration need to do more to cut that off, that flow of drugs?

MILGRAM: Our foreign work is so essential to the work that DEA does, and I've been at DEA now for five months, and I can tell you that every single day I am so grateful for our men and women worldwide because everything they do is about protecting the United States and making communities here safe and healthy. Whether it's in one of the countries you talk about, or just as we're talking about, the threat from Mexico and from China right now is immense. That is the key threat. So as we think about our work, DEA operates worldwide. We do whatever we need to do to protect the United States within our laws and our jurisdictions. And it is critical that this issue be elevated, just in the way I think the president was doing this week with forming this new transnational organized crime group that will go across the United States government to really say this has to be a top priority wherever we find it in the world.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But where do you fit into the migration crisis right now? I mean, is- is stopping the flow of drugs a required step to stop the flow of people as well? If it's the cartels who are behind both?

MILGRAM: The cartels will do anything to get drugs in. And I think it's really important to note that we see drugs coming into the United States in every way you can imagine. Yes, we see that coming through the border. We see it coming through ports, through airplanes, through freight services, through parcel delivery services. Again, it's anything the cartels can do to get them into the United States. And because it is a new deadly threat, remember- also that fentanyl tiny quantities are deadly and extremely potent and addictive. So it's not in years past where someone would have to bring kilos upon kilos into the United States to be able to- to bring traffic and flood the United States with drugs, it is almost miniscule quantities right now. So the threat has changed enormously. And to me, my job is to be relentlessly focused on those criminal drug networks that are bringing this harm to our people and are killing Americans.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So if it's coming through the US mail system, I mean, do you need to do more right in a regulatory way to separate the legitimate through the illegitimate drugs that are coming to your front door?

MILGRAM: So we work closely with the Postal Service. I mean, I- I think the short answer is all of us have to do more. I mean, this is a moment where we know that drugs are killing Americans at record rates. And that, to me, means both going after the networks and taking them down in any way we can and also helping the people who are harmed, right? And so and being a part of our communities where we see these overdose deaths and drug related violence. So, the answer is we all- we work closely together across the government, but we have to do more than we're doing because we know the threat has evolved and changed and it's critical that we meet this moment and this threat in every way we possibly can to stop this from happening.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And lastly, we have seen a spike in homicide- homicide rates across the country. In major cities, there are fewer police on the streets as well. How much of that do you attribute to drug trafficking? And- and the part of the puzzle that you look at?

MILGRAM: So we worry about this all the time, and part of what we do is we have to be focused on the harm in communities and that is drug related violence in many communities in the takedown we just did in 570 cases. We took 288 guns off the streets of the United States in just over two months. Thirty-one of those cases are directly related to murders and shootings. So we know that there is a deep and long standing link between drug trafficking and violence in our communities. That's why we prioritize work around identifying the individuals in communities who are responsible for that drug related violence and targeting those specific networks.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And you see a connection to COVID as well?

MILGRAM: There's no question that COVID has made all of this in so many ways more difficult. It's limited treatment access for a lot of Americans. There is- there is no question that COVID has made all of this, and I think in some ways it's also masked because all of us are so concerned about COVID that I think it- it was a real milestone in just a tragic one to see that a 100,000 lives had been lost. And if it were not for COVID I think we would have been talking about this every single day across our country, but of course, it's been a very, very difficult time. All right.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Anne Milgram, thank you for your time today. We'll be back in a moment.

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