As Delawareans continue to die at record rates from opioid drug overdoses, Attorney General Matt Denn made his strongest call to date for legislature to invest the millions of dollars it will take to curb the crisis.
Opioids deaths have surpassed the number of fatal car crashes in Delaware annually, and nationally, the United States has lost more people to drug overdoses than Americans lost in Vietnam War, Denn said.
“We’re running out of analogies to make it scope-comprehensive," said Denn.
While Delaware continues to see growth in its revenue estimates, making it financially stable for the first time in a decade, Denn said it’s time that money go towards combating what could become the leading cause of death in Delaware. During his time in state government, Denn said he’s seen Delaware rise to the occasion to keep the public safe in the event of blizzards, tornadoes, floods, and other public safety threats--but it’s yet to do so with the opioid epidemic. He claimed overdose deaths would be dramatically higher if not for the increased availability of Naloxone and NARCAN through the work of the grassroots organization atTacK addiction.
“I never once heard someone say, ‘I don’t think we can afford to do that,’” he said. “We spent what we had to spend to save lives, and now we have this opioid crisis that’s killing our neighbors at the rate of hundreds of people per year…we’re not investing what we need to invest to stop it.”
His comments were made at the University of Delaware’s Arsht Hall in Wilmington Monday, April 2, 2018, where he also called on lawmakers to fund efforts to decrease gun violence in Wilmington. He touted efforts to pay Wilmington Police overtime, using one-time bank settlement funds, to conduct community policing foot patrols.
"The numbers...were very encouraging, and then the state money ran out, and the city actually objected in 2016 when I tried to get more money from the state legislature to resuscitate those foot patrols in the city. Now there is a new mayor and a new police chief...for the first time in three years, I feel comfortable saying that the leadership of the city is visibly moving in the right direction on the neighborhood policing front."
But as with opioids, that's only law enforcement is only part of the solution. He acknowledged police officers on the frontlines are too often being asked to address problems previously neglected by government, which has led to a dramatic spike in youth violence rooted in extreme poverty. He also called dealing with the opioid epidemic a “dollar-and-cents issue.”
It's estimated 11,000 Delawareans are addicted to drugs, according to the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services. In the First State, their only option is one week at a detoxification facility, followed by medication.
“That’s it, unless they have a family that’s wealthy enough to pay out of pocket to send out-of-state for an extended period of time,” he said. “In almost every instance, they’re on their own.”
Combating drug addiction often takes far more than one week—the journey of recovery can last a lifetime for some. Denn said the state could make it more feasible for providers to operate more sober living facilities as well treatment centers.
“With all of these funds on our hands…there’s no excuse for the state not to substantially increase our investment in sober living and residential treatment,” he said. ""These are crises that we can't ignore; these are crises that we finally have the means to address," he said.
The outgoing attorney general also spoke against the possibility of safe injection sites coming to Delaware. Many exist in Canada and Europe, but they remain illegal in the United States. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made it clear he will enforce federal drug laws.
“I have some real concerns about essentially telling people that there’s a safe way to inject heroin. We’re undergoing these enormous efforts to try to dissuade people from using drugs, and then to set up a facility, where they can 'safely use them' seems to work at cross purposes,” he said. “It’s not really an issue that’s right for Delaware, right now, because it violates state and federal law…that kind of ends the discussion.”
Denn also fielded audience questions on his future, since he's not running for reelection.
"I don't know what I'm doing in January," he said. "I'm not being facetious; if I start doing something next year, and I find that I'm getting things done in the state in a way that I would like to as a private citizen doing whatever I'm doing, I might just be inclined to stick with that, or I might someday want to come back into public service because I've loved doing it."
He called it a difficult decision not to run, but said in whatever he does next, he'd like to continue his work with atTacK addiction as well as continue efforts to help children.
"When I see that people, who are able to step outside of government and still have this tremendous positive impact as citizens, that's apart of what made me decide maybe I can do that too," he said.