Mike DeWine: Heroin epidemic is 'a human tragedy of epic proportion'

Mike DeWine is the attorney general of Ohio.

Ohio is facing the worst public health crisis in our lifetime. Heroin and synthetic opioids are everywhere, killing nearly 10 Ohioans daily.

We’ve prosecuted mothers who sold their kids into prostitution for heroin. Ohioans are using elephant tranquilizers to get high. And children are coming home from school to find their parents lying dead on the floor with needles stuck in their arms.

As John F. Kennedy once admonished, “The nation will listen only if it is a moment of great urgency.” That moment is here.

The Ohio House proposed budget is a great step, directing resources to many of our biggest needs. But we must change the culture. Psychological barriers that once prevented people from taking hard drugs, such as heroin, are gone. Through repetitive drug prevention education, however, we can begin to alter how people view drug use.

Mike DeWine

Along with House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger and former Senate President Keith Faber, I convened a group of experts on education and drug prevention. They issued 15 recommendations, including the need for consistent, age-appropriate, evidence-based drug abuse prevention education in kindergarten through 12th grade.

This is not a mandate. However, if progress is not made, we must make it part of the curriculum in every Ohio school.

Further, if we are serious about this, we must engage the best and brightest in the private and public sectors to create a statewide anti-drug campaign. We can change the public mindset through messaging on social media, television and other mediums.

Let's replicate what works

Local communities are doing some great things, and we need to replicate efforts that work -- programs like Lucas County Sheriff John Tharp’s Drug Abuse Response Team, created to help addicts navigate the treatment system. What’s unique is that law enforcement officers develop personal relationships with addicts, investing both time and compassion.

Similarly, there are heroic judges and their staffs across Ohio who run specialized court dockets for drug offenders. Sentencing can include sticking with treatment, staying clean, and getting a job -- all of which help addicts get back on their feet.

Law enforcement needs to fight this on a national, unified front. We need a coordinated effort that involves the DEA, Homeland Security, and the Justice Department. I have talked directly with Attorney General Sessions, and he recognizes the urgent need for information sharing among states and the federal government.

We need a continuum of care

Ultimately, breaking free from addiction in the long-term requires a continuum of care -- a holistic, wrap-around approach from overdose to sobriety.

Most Ohio counties have gaps in that continuum, and we must address the different needs of each local community. Creating regional detox centers is start, but equally important is making sure that after detox, addicts can transition into appropriate treatment.

Because navigating the recovery process can be overwhelming, Ohio should also partner with the private sector to create a statewide, one-stop-shop website for information.

As I travel the state, I continue hearing that Ohio lacks enough providers who offer addiction treatment. To incentivize more doctors to provide these services, Ohio needs to examine every option, from changing reimbursement rates to increasing medical training. We also should review funding priorities and consider targeted grant opportunities for counties most in need.

Having a stable place to live after treatment is vital to sobriety. Ohio needs to leverage public and private resources to increase facilities.

Further, one of the best ways to help someone is with a job. We must ensure that our workforce training system is designed to help recovering addicts get jobs and incentivize employers to hire them. Finding workers who can pass a drug test is also key to Ohio’s economic future.

The children of the epidemic

Children are the silent victims of this epidemic. Often, they are thrust into foster care when one or both parents are addicted. My office is funding an innovative, new pilot program in 19 Southern Ohio counties called START that increases resources to children’s services agencies for intensive attention for both children and parents to promote recovery and family reunification. Expanding this program to every county in Ohio would be a worthwhile use of state resources.

The opioid epidemic is a human tragedy of epic proportion. No doubt the human toll would be much greater, though, but for the lifesaving effect of the drug naloxone, which reverses overdoses.

Cynics say, “Why bring them back to life? They’ll just use again.”

I say ask Nicky Kelly from Cleveland, who got high almost every day for 10 years. She overdosed a dozen times. Naloxone brought her back twice. She’s been sober for four years and volunteers to help other women get clean.

Ask Valerie Brodbeck from Dayton, who struggled with heroin addiction for about eight years. Naloxone saved her three times. She’s been sober more than six years. Her son starts kindergarten in August.

We save these lives because it’s the right thing to do.

As Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Every crisis has both its dangers and its opportunities. Each can spell either salvation or doom.” We have hope for salvation by doing this right and making this public health crisis our greatest priority.

Our future depends on it.

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