Let’s address the problem of drug addiction, not retreat


Sen. Rob Portman - Contributing columnist



Last week the media reported that the White House is considering cutting 95 percent of the funding for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). I understand the need for deficit reduction, but at a time when Ohio and the country is facing the worst drug crisis in our history, these proposed cuts will end up costing all of us more.

The ONDCP Director is often known as the “drug czar,” and it’s the nerve center of our federal anti-drug efforts. ONDCP sets the policy priorities for many of our drug control programs, and runs programs like the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program and the Drug-Free Communities program.

These are effective programs needed now more than ever. The High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas Program is a partnership between federal law enforcement and state and local governments that has helped Ohio a lot by removing $90 million worth of illegal drugs from our streets and apprehending more than 4,000 fugitives involved in drug trafficking. Those efforts reduce crime, keep our neighborhoods safer, and ultimately save lives.

The Drug-Free Communities program supports community anti-drug coalitions, which are groups made up of parents, teachers, pastors, police officers, doctors, and other community leaders who come together to prevent drug abuse through better prevention and education. These coalitions work because they’re local and accountable. I’ve seen that firsthand.

Twenty-three years ago, when I was a Freshman Member of Congress, a constituent from Clermont County came to my office and told me that she had just lost her son to an overdose. His name was Jeff Gardner and he was just 17 years old. I knew about it because, at that time, drug overdose deaths were a rare occurrence and it had been in the headlines.

I knew all of the facts and the statistics. I told her about how law enforcement was fighting the war on drugs, how much money we were spending, and how many people we were locking up. But she just looked at me and asked, “how does that help me?”

In other words, the usual answers weren’t good enough. She made the compelling case that the demand for drugs had to be addressed, too.

The more research I did, the more I agreed. So I talked to some of my friends in Cincinnati, including pastors, police officers, teachers, and business leaders, and, along with three respected community leaders — the Rev. Damon Lynch, Jr., Ohio First Lady Hope Taft, and John Pepper — we set up one of these coalitions. We called it the Coalition for a Drug-Free Greater Cincinnati. I chaired it for nine years, and I was on the board when I ran for the U.S. Senate.

And we got a lot of good results. The coalition is now known as PreventionFirst! They tell me that since 2000, alcohol use among young people they work with has gone down 46 percent, tobacco use 61 percent, and marijuana use 22 percent. Since they started testing it in 2012, prescription drug use among these kids has declined by 29 percent.

The success we had as a coalition showed me that we had a model that could work for other communities across the country, too. So I worked on a bipartisan basis to write a bill to create the Drug-Free Communities Support program. Over the last two decades, that law has spawned more than 2,000 community coalitions, prevented a lot of addictions, and saved lives. It requires coalitions to fully match the federal dollars, measure performance and be accountable for every dollar spent.

But today we find ourselves in the grip of a new type of addiction: heroin, prescription drugs, fentanyl and other synthetic forms of heroin. Because of these opioids, more Americans are dying of drug overdoses now than ever before. Drug overdoses are the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, surpassing car accidents and gun violence.

In the midst of this crisis, we got some good news last week when Congress and the President reached a bipartisan agreement to keep the government funded through the end of September. That legislation—now law—contains full funding for a law I authored called the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, and a law I supported called the 21st Century Cures Act. Together, these new laws will invest $700 million this year in prevention, treatment, and long-term recovery from addiction.

But having these measures in place doesn’t make the ONDCP any less important or the grant programs it runs any less effective. That’s why on Tuesday I took to the Senate floor to bring this issue to the attention of my colleagues. I also sent a bipartisan letter to the White House urging them to reconsider these cuts. More importantly, so did more than 200 groups like the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, Facing Addiction, and Faces and Voices of Recovery. They know that these deep cuts don’t make sense at a time of this new wave of addiction.

Now is not the time to cut back our efforts to prevent drug addiction — especially not programs like these that really work. These programs have done a lot to help Ohio, and I’m going to continue to work to ensure that they are fully funded.

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Sen. Rob Portman

Contributing columnist

Rob Portman is a United States senator from Ohio.

Rob Portman is a United States senator from Ohio.