For far too long, prescription pain medication, heroin, and fentanyl have broken families apart and devastated communities in Ohio. In 2017, our opioid overdose death rate was almost three times the national average, with nearly a dozen Ohioans dying from these dangerous drugs every day surpassing car crashes as our state’s number one killer. Since 2017, we’ve started to turn the tide against opioids. Last year, after a decade of increased overdose deaths every year, we’ve led the country with a 22 percent decrease in overdose deaths.
This is good news, and federal laws I have worked on like the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) and the 21st Century CURES Act have helped by providing state and local government and nonprofit groups in Ohio with support for proven prevention, recovery, and treatment programs to help addicted individuals heal. Grants have also been available for naloxone, the miracle drug that saves lives by reversing the effects of an opioid overdose. Nearly $4 billion in additional assistance nationwide has been matched by additional support from states and local governments and countless selfless volunteers and charities.
Thanks to our local law enforcement, there’s less heroin and fewer prescription pills on our streets. What’s more, first responders are using innovative new approaches to ensure individuals whose overdoses are reversed by naloxone go into treatment. I saw this firsthand when I recently participated in a ride-along with the Columbus Fire Department’s RREACT team. RREACT is using an $800,000 CARA grant on an intervention program with a rapid response team made up of EMS officials, law enforcement, and social workers. The team not only reverses overdoses, but also provides comprehensive post-overdose care by getting addicts into treatment.
These sorts of breakthrough programs are making a difference, but there is still a long way to go. That’s why I was pleased that the Department of Health and Human Services recently announced that Ohio would receive more than $55 million in additional State Opioid Response (SOR) Grant funding to help sustain these efforts.
Ohio led the country in the decline of overdose deaths last year – nationwide overdose deaths are lower, too, for first time since 1990. Still, there are still far too many individuals losing their lives to the scourge of addiction. In fact, the threat of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times more powerful than heroin, seems to be increasing. In August, six individuals in the Cleveland area fatally overdosed on fentanyl in a single day, and last month, 10 people in Columbus died of fentanyl-related overdoses within 26 hours. These losses are tragic, and highlight the need for the U.S. Postal Service to fully implement my STOP Act, which helps keep dangerous drugs like fentanyl from entering our communities from other countries via our own mail system.
In addition, we’re continually hearing that, while we’ve made progress on the opioid epidemic, other drugs are becoming more common. Recently, I visited Seneca and Huron counties and met with the boards of the local Mental Health and Addiction Services to learn how the addiction epidemic is affecting their communities. While they’ve been able to use federal funds to help lower rates of opioid abuse, they’ve also seen an increase in the use of other drugs, particularly meth and cocaine, sometimes laced with fentanyl.
This matches what I’m hearing from law enforcement all across Ohio. In Portsmouth, $35,000 worth of meth was recently seized in an apartment. Authorities in Whitehall outside Columbus found nearly 30 pounds of cocaine in a drug bust in September, and nearly two dozen individuals were arrested recently for trafficking meth and heroin in Ohio and West Virginia.
These communities are looking for help. Since we know this surge of cheap and powerful meth and cocaine is coming across the southern border, one thing the federal government can do is tighten border security to reduce the supply and increase the cost. But we also need to broaden our successful efforts on prevention and getting addicts into treatment and recovery.
That’s why one of my top priorities this fall is passing legislation that will ensure we can tackle drug addiction in all its forms. My Combating Meth and Cocaine Act will allow current federal opioid grant funds to also be used for programs focused on treating meth and cocaine addiction. The bill also reauthorizes the federal SOR Grant program for five years, providing $500 million annually. These simple changes provide needed certainty and flexibility as we combat addiction.
We’re beginning to turn the tide on the worst drug epidemic ever. Moving forward, let’s keep doing what’s worked on opioids and respond aggressively to the new threats from meth and cocaine.
Rob Portman is a United States senator from Ohio.