As a federal prosecutor in New York and Virginia, Mary Daly worked narcotics cases involving gangs and international drug traffickers. Now, she’s the Justice Department’s point person on the biggest drug case of all—the opioid crisis that is killing an average of 115 Americans every day.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions appointed Daly, 40, to the newly created post of opioid coordinator in February, making her the hub for the Justice Department’s efforts to try to get a grip on the epidemic.
“It’s a lot different than being in the field,” Daly said in an interview with NPR. “But one of the reasons I took the job is I thought it was an opportunity to help with this problem on a larger scale than I was as a prosecutor.”
The scale of the opioid addiction problem is immense. It has become so widespread, touching so many families in states across the country that the administration has begun calling it “the crisis next door.”
Daly doesn’t know anyone personally who’s died from an opioid overdose, but she said that doesn’t mean she hasn’t seen the epidemic’s toll.
“As a prosecutor, you interact with people who are addicted, and it’s startling for me to see the grip that this addiction had on people,” she said. “I’ve been a drug prosecutor for 13 years, and I have to tell you I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Over her career, Daly has helped prosecute drug cases of all stripes, from marijuana to heroin and everything in between. But she said that when the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl and its analogues began showing up a few years ago, it had a devastating effect.
“It was never a good scenario to begin with. You have prescription drugs, many people getting hooked on those prescription drugs, and so we don’t want to take our eyes off the ball in terms of trying to enforce the laws and prevent diversion of pharmaceutical drugs because we don’t want that pool of addicted population to continue increasing,” she said. “But nonetheless, fentanyl is very scary because it’s being laced in heroin, but not only heroin. It’s now showing up in cocaine. It’s being pressed into counterfeit pills.”
Those pills, she said, could be sold as Xanax or any number of things on the black market, with deadly consequences.
“These unwitting recreational drug users who may not have an opioid tolerance are going to be taking this, and dying,” she said.
Last month, President Trump unveiled his plan for tackling the opioid crisis. His proposal included expanded access for treatment and recovery services.
But in a speech in New Hampshire, Trump emphasized a get-tough law enforcement approach that included instructing the Justice Department to pursue the death penalty for drug traffickers, where appropriate under current law.
The president’s comments, which echoed earlier hardline remarks, have fueled concerns in some quarters that the administration wants to return the heavy-handed drug-war tactics of years past.
“Good drug policy is about balance between reducing supply and reducing demand, and a lot of the language and rhetoric that comes out does feel a little too heavy on the law enforcement side,” said Tym Rourke, an advocate for opioid addiction treatment and the director of New Hampshire Tomorrow. “That’s the part that is most concerning.”
Daly said treatment and recovery are important components of the administration’s opioid initiative, but she said law enforcement has a crucial role to play.
“I think we should not underplay the importance of aggressive enforcement when it comes to this epidemic,” she said.
As opioid coordinator, it’s Daly’s job to manage the Justice Department’s various anti-opioid efforts.
She oversees prosecutors assigned to focus on health care fraud in opioid hot spots. She works with federal authorities who are targeting the flow of heroin and fentanyl into the country and going after online vendors. And she has a hand in Justice Department efforts to support states and local governments engaged in litigation with drug companies.
In her new job, Daly works out of an office on the fourth floor of the Justice Department in Washington, D.C.
It marks a return of sorts for her. She used to visit the building as a kid when her father, William Barr, served as President George H.W. Bush’s attorney general.
“I was young when he was attorney general,” Daly said. “And I have great memories of coming to the Department of Justice, and I also had the opportunity to see him sort of in action.”
Now, Daly shows up at the department with serious work of her own: trying to reduce the number of Americans dying in one of the worst drug crises in the nation’s history.