Last month, I joined tens of thousands of Americans and hundreds of Ohioans on the National Mall for the first-ever UNITE to Face Addiction rally. The rally took place during a time when deaths from drug overdoses have now overtaken automobile accidents as the leading cause of accidental deaths in Ohio. Overdoses are taking the lives of about 23 Ohioans a week, and in 2014 there were 242 deaths in Hamilton County alone.
Today, more than 24 million people in the United States struggle with addiction and substance abuse. If we do not step up the fight against addiction, those numbers will only continue to rise and we will continue to lose fellow citizens to the tightening grip of abuse. When I was first elected to Congress, a constituent came to see me who had lost her son, Jeff Gardner, to a drug overdose. She gave me his ID bracelet, which I still have, and challenged me to think differently about how best to engage all of us in an effort to prevent drug abuse and treat those who are addicted.
I founded the Coalition for a Drug Free Cincinnati 20 years ago, and chaired the coalition for nine years. Now called PreventionFIRST!, the coalition has made a difference in keeping young people from making the wrong choice. I also wrote legislation, including the Drug Free Communities Act, which spawned the creation of 2,000 other local coalitions around the country. During those 20 years I’ve had a chance to meet a lot of people who have struggled to overcome addiction and throughout my experiences I have learned that a comprehensive, evidence-based approach is needed to fight addiction.
New legislation I have co-authored called the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) is an effort to do just that. It increases proven educational efforts with the goal of preventing drug abuse before it can even start. It expands disposal sites so we can keep unwanted prescription medications from falling into the hands of young kids. It gives first responders and law enforcement agencies better access to Naloxone, a drug that reverses overdoses, and it helps states monitor and track prescription drug dispensing to avoid patients receiving more drugs than medically necessary.
Let’s also reject the old “war on drugs,” in which people are locked up for using drugs, and instead focus our resources on what we know works. This includes proven drug prevention and education that starts in the home, and includes all sectors of our community, from schools to the workplace. It also includes treating addiction as a disease and providing more effective treatment and recovery.
This new way forward will strengthen our communities, reduce crime, improve our economy and help more of our fellow citizens achieve their God-given potential.
Rob Portman is a U.S. Senator from Ohio.