COLUMN: Gov. Kasich missed an opportunity to show leadership in the heroin crisis

Posted at 5:17 PM, Aug 25, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-26 10:16:34-04

This column is part of WCPO's Heroin Project: How Do We Respond?

Ohio’s governor was in Cincinnati Thursday with a perfect opportunity to make a difference in the state’s heroin crisis.

But he blew it.

Kasich keynoted a meeting of justice professionals from Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and six other states. They’re convening here for three days to figure out how to work together on the heroin epidemic that has hit all of their states.

The timing couldn’t have been better.

Here in Greater Cincinnati, cops, paramedics, ER staff and families are in the midst of a week-long outbreak of drug overdoses. More than 100 people have succumbed to heroin or some heroin cocktail over the last seven days, a calamity this community has never seen.

But Kasich didn’t mention it.

His speech also came on the same day his health department reported that 3,050 people died in Ohio from heroin in 2015. That’s a 20 percent increase from the year before.

He did note that statistic, but quickly added that he wanted to talk about the people who didn’t die.

In a community where people are dropping over in the streets from drugs, in a state besieged by heroin, and in front of an audience of infuential people from nine states, Kasich did little more than take credit for initiatives that he started years ago.

He touted his effort to shut down pill mills, doctor shops that doled out prescriptions for pain pills. Great move. Necessary move. It put disreputable doctors out of business and in jail. But that started at least five years ago. And shutting down the pill mills, necessary though it was, is partly blamed for the crisis we have today: heroin.

Kasich also touted his signature program to respond to the drug crisis. It’s called Start Talking and includes information and materials parents and teachers can use to open up conversations with kids about drugs.

Good program. Everyone needs to talk more about it.

But governor, we are in the midst of a catastrophe. In the last five years, 8,584 Ohioans have died from heroin or another opioid. It’s gotten worse every year. For 13 years. Check your health department’s stats.

People are dying by the thousands. Where is the urgency?

In May, WCPO urged Kasich to declare the heroin crisis an emergency so money and personnel could be immediately directed to it.

Editorial: Governor, save lives and declare the heroin epidemic an emergency 

On Thursday, Cincinnati Vice Mayor David Mann and Council Member P.G. Sittenfeld also called for a heroin emergency. They noted that the governor is sitting on a surplus of $2 billion in tax dollars, some of which could be used for more Narcan, to expand treatment and to train first responders and others.

But here’s the message Kasich left with the summit-goers: “It’s up to you and your communities to save your kids.”

And he revealed his thinking about spending when he spoke about the Start Talking program: “I shouldn’t have to pay teachers one dime,” to talk to their students about drugs.

Yes, talk is cheap, governor.

And Ohio needs more than talk.