Over the past few weeks, I traveled across our state, visiting with small business owners, steel workers, and students to hear their views on the challenges facing our communities. While they often spoke about how to create more jobs, bring down the cost of healthcare, and get our economy moving again, there was one issue that was on a lot of people’s minds—illegal drug use and how to prevent and treat it, especially in the wake of a heroin epidemic that is taking the lives of four Ohioans every day.
I have been involved in this issue for more than twenty years. In 1995, I joined with leaders from across southwest Ohio to form the Coalition for a Drug-Free Greater Cincinnati. I served as chair of the coalition for nine years, and I’ve taken the knowledge I’ve gained from that experience to author half a dozen laws that marshal resources and channel them towards proven approaches in drug prevention and treatment.
One thing I learned a long time ago is that the best approach to prevention and treatment starts at the local level. The problem of drug abuse won’t be solved in Washington, D.C, but in our homes and our communities. The federal government can and should help, but it’s an issue that requires a comprehensive approach—from prevention to treatment and recovery—and everyone has a role to play.
That was confirmed again at roundtables I organized over the past few weeks in Franklin and Jackson Counties. I heard first-hand from people of every background—volunteers, treatment professionals, people who have lost loved ones, and folks who are fighting and beating addictions they’ve been struggling with for years—about what we can do to turn the tide of drug abuse. Their perspective is one that people in Washington need to hear. On Tuesday, I joined Senator Whitehouse of Rhode Island in hosting a first-of-its-kind forum on drug addiction and recidivism to not only examine our approach to addiction, but also to examine why so many who leave prison end up back behind bars, sometimes within months of their release.
Our forum was an opportunity for experts and community leaders to share their experiences with each other and with lawmakers. We were particularly interested in showing how we can leverage our criminal justice system in our efforts to break the grip of addiction, using approaches that we know work. A decade ago I authored the Second Chance Act, a law that supports proven drug treatment and job training programs for newly-released inmates. In the states that have taken advantage of it, we have seen significant reductions in recidivism—down double-digits in Ohio alone. Now we are working on a reauthorization of the Second Chance Act, and I have crafted bipartisan legislation—the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act—that would apply the same proven methods in justice reinvestment and reentry that have worked in the states to our federal prisons.
The fight against addiction will continue on long after we are gone, but we can and must make a difference today. That difference isn’t measured in dollars and cents or in numbers and statistics. It’s measured in lives saved, in dreams realized, and in communities reborn. These are things that are worth fighting for.
Rob Portman, U.S. Senator