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Editorial: Faced with calls for a heroin emergency, Kasich argues about the law

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Posted at 6:00 AM, Sep 26, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-28 15:19:55-04

Since he took office, Governor Kasich hasn’t hesitated to use his considerable executive powers.   

But when it comes to Ohio’s worst crisis in decades, he’s become unusually timid.

WCPO’s editorial board first called on Kasich in May to declare a statewide emergency over the heroin crisis, a call that was taken up by members of the public as well as legislators. But faced with those calls, the governor argues that he simply doesn’t have the power to do that.

It’s an unusual argument for Kasich. He’s issued 90 executive orders since he took office and used them to declare statewide emergencies giving him the power to immediately change laws, mobilize state personnel and direct tax dollars. He even declared an emergency so Cleveland could hire more police for the Republican convention this summer. That cost more than $9 million, and the state is expected to approve the expense Monday.  

But as Southwest Ohio and other parts of the state struggle with an outbreak of overdoses from new and lethal drugs, Kasich now claims he is powerless to take immediate emergency action on the crisis.

His office has taken up an ongoing debate with the WCPO editorial board. Through a spokesperson, he argues that he has no authority to declare a public health emergency for an epidemic that has killed thousands.

They sent us a PowerPoint presentation. They sent us emails, downplaying the governor’s emergency powers.

One email said: “… The governor is fully committed to working with locals to fight this battle and that means working together on proven solutions and proven tools. It also means focusing on tools that actually exist instead of hoping for the equivalent of magic spells that don't exist.”

Magic spells?

Another said, “There is no specific authority under Ohio law to declare a ‘public health’ emergency.” However, it went on: “The governor may declare an emergency for a variety of reasons (including for public health) to authorize certain actions not granted in statute …”

So, he can’t declare a "public health" emergency but he can declare an emergency for a public health purpose? Good enough, why not do it then?

The governor is sitting on more than $2 billion in tax dollars, a surplus known as the Rainy Day Fund. Some of that money could be spent to ensure every police and fire department in the state has an adequate supply of the overdose antidote Narcan. The Ohio Highway Patrol could be given more resources to intercept drug dealers traveling up and down Interstate 75. Tax dollars could be directed to county jails and state prisons to set up “recovery pods,” where inmates suffering from addiction could begin to learn how to function on the outside without drugs.

In August, Kasich spoke in Cincinnati to a conference of justice officials about heroin, but announced no new strategies to fight it.

The governor’s quibbling over semantics is baffling.

For one, the law is clear.

Here’s the chapter and verse of the relevant sections of the Ohio Revised Code if you’d like to see for yourself. 

These laws are easily applied to give the governor freedom to declare emergencies and marshal the substantial resources of state government. He’s done it for public health problems too, as in 2014, when he declared an emergency for a mumps outbreak in central Ohio. There were no deaths were reported from the mumps.

The heroin epidemic, on the other hand, has killed 8,584 Ohioans in the last five years.

Drug overdoses and deaths have overwhelmed our communities. Police are devoting so much time to answering overdose calls, it’s hindering their efforts to track down the dealers, Newtown Police Chief Tom Synan told the WCPO Heroin Advisory Board. Overdose calls in Hamilton County at one time averaged 20 to 25 a week. Now, it’s 20 to 25 a day, Synan says. In Cuyahoga County, seven overdose deaths were reported in one day over the weekend. 

Are some Democrats making the most of a political opportunity by calling out Kasich on this? Sure. We get that. But the families left behind after a heroin death are Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, independents, or – most likely – don’t really care. They just want something done.

No one’s arguing that Kasich doesn’t care about this epidemic. He has taken steps to address it. But clearly, the response to date hasn’t been enough to even slow the rate of death and overdose.

What’s needed is the rapid deployment of money and manpower that only an emergency declaration can accomplish.

And that’s not a magic spell.