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In Tampa visit, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recommends aspirin over opioids for pain relief

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions enters a news conference Wednesday, February 7, 2018, in Tampa. Sessions spoke about the efforts to combat drug trafficking and end the opioid crisis. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Feb. 7, 2018

TAMPA — U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has drawn jeers for suggesting that people in pain should consider over-the-counter Bufferin instead of opioids.

On Wednesday, Sessions was in Tampa, touting the Trump administration's efforts to combat drug abuse and trafficking.

This time, he broadened his suggestion to aspirin.

"I am operating on the assumption that this country prescribes too many opioids," Sessions said. "People need to take some aspirin sometimes."

Sessions delivered a 25-minute address at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa, speaking to local police and federal prosecutors about the devastating impact of opioid abuse, including heroin and its high-powered cousin, fentanyl.

In 2016, there were 64,000 overdose deaths nationwide. That's almost the entire population of Daytona Beach, Sessions noted.

"As we all know, these are not numbers," Sessions said. "These are moms, dads, daughters, spouses, friends, and neighbors."

But Sessions, veering away from his prepared remarks, also made an example of Gen. John Kelly, the president's chief of staff, whom he said refused opioids after a minor surgery.

"He goes, 'I'm not taking any drugs,'?" the attorney general said, imitating Kelly's voice and getting a chuckle from the crowd. "But, I mean, a lot of people — you can get through these things."

The remarks followed similar statements Sessions made Tuesday night at a Heritage Foundation event marking the birthday of President Ronald Reagan. Sessions suggested addictions to heroin and other serious drugs start more often with marijuana than opioid prescriptions, according to the online news magazine The Week.

"Sometimes you just need to take two Bufferin or something and go to bed," the magazine quoted Sessions as saying.

The comments were instant Twitter fodder.

"Can we please, please, please get an Attorney General who didn't have to watch Reefer Madness as part of his classroom studies?" wrote Twitter user @SandyBHutchison.

"Bufferin?" tweeted @kimhurdman. "Is that still available (over the counter)? I think I last remember seeing a bottle with that name in my grandma's medicine cabinet, circa 1978."

Bufferin is an aspirin brand that includes an antacid to reduce stomach upset. Aspirin is most commonly used to treat minor pain such as toothaches or headaches.

Sessions' comments also drew criticism from some in the medical community.

"That remark reflects a failure to recognize the severity of pain of some patients," said Bob Twillman, the executive director of the Academy of Integrative Pain Management, a national organization that advocates for integrative pain care.

"It's an unconscionable remark," Twillman said. "It further illustrates how out of touch parts of the administration are with opioids and pain management."

In his prepared speech, Sessions took a sobering tone in describing the toll of opioids.

He mentioned overdose cases from the Middle District of Florida, the federal judicial territory that includes 35 counties from Naples to Jacksonville. Among those he pointed to was 17-year-old Katie Golden, a Plant High School senior who last year died of a heroin overdose.

Sessions also called attention to several local prosecutions against drug suppliers.

They included the case of Felix Mejia-Lagunas, a California man whom prosecutors described as the top-ranking member in the United States of a Mexican drug trafficking organization. He shipped heroin to Florida, where it was distributed on the streets of Orlando and Tampa. Mejia-Lagunas was sentenced in December to 27 years in prison.

In the last year, drug prosecutions in the Middle District have increased 15 percent, Sessions said. He said he assigned 12 prosecutors in opioid "hot spot districts," which include Tampa, to focus on opioid-related health care fraud.

In January, Sessions named Maria Chapa Lopez as interim U.S. attorney in the Middle District, citing her experience in handling complex drug prosecutions.

Other points he mentioned included the tightening of regulations on fentanyl and the creation of a federal law enforcement task force to focus on Internet-based drug trafficking.

Sessions did not take questions after delivering his remarks.

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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