One thing we’ve learned over the years is that we can’t just legislate away the problem of drug abuse. We’ve learned that we can’t keep our kids off drugs through a top-down, one-size-fits-all program. Instead, we have to work from the grassroots up. It takes our communities coming together to implement proven solutions that address substance use and abuse—all the way from primary prevention to aftercare for those individuals in recovery.
I’ve seen firsthand how the work of drug prevention coalitions can reduce crime and make neighborhoods and communities safer. I founded the Coalition for a Drug-Free Greater Cincinnati, in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio in 1996, with the goal of demand reduction—directly decreasing the number of local kids who choose to use drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. And it made a big difference. Our coalition’s actions helped lead to a 30 percent reduction of adolescent substance abuse in the greater Cincinnati area.
It was seeing the successful work of our Coalition that led me to join with others to author the Drug-Free Communities Act which has been a central, bi-partisan component of our nation’s demand-reduction strategy since it became law in 1998. We’ve prioritized investment at the community level with those who have the most power to reduce the demand for drugs—parents, teachers, business leaders, the media, the faith community, law enforcement officials, and youth.
Our fight goes on, and it’s one that changes every day. When I began working on these issues with the Coalition in Cincinnati back in the 90’s, crack cocaine and marijuana were the drugs we were all worried about. Then it was heroin, then it was methamphetamine, then it was prescription drugs. Now it’s synthetic drugs, electronic cigarettes, even cough syrup. The ever-changing face of drug abuse is one reason we can never let our guard down, we can never declare victory. New challenges will always arise.
One new challenge is dealing with the increase of new chemicals in synthetic drugs. Among 12th graders, synthetic marijuana is the second most widely used drug after marijuana. Last year, I passed a law making the synthetic drugs that we saw in the market illegal. My bill placed five specific synthetic drugs on Schedule 1, meaning that they are always illegal and those who peddle them to our kids can be prosecuted at the strictest level. Unfortunately, however, there are chemists running amuck in Ohio communities who make money by simply changing around molecules to create a new drug that is not scheduled and therefore not illegal. This makes it impossible to deal with these dangerous drugs through the traditional method of placing them on Schedule 1. Additionally, many of these drugs are manufactured abroad and go unregulated when they are brought into this country.
So we are taking a new approach. Last month, I cosponsored the Protecting Our Youth from Dangerous Synthetic Drugs Act of 2013, a bill introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to combat synthetic drugs designed to mimic the effects of controlled substances and circumvent existing federal drug laws. These so-called controlled substance analogues are currently unregulated. Dangerous synthetic drugs are plaguing Ohio communities, and this bill will give states a new tool in the fight against drug abuse.
Many of the estimated 200 controlled substance analogues on the market today are designed to mimic the effects of hallucinogenic drugs like ecstasy, PCP and LSD, as well as THC, the principal chemical in marijuana. By better enabling law enforcement to prosecute against individuals who illegally produce and distribute these unregulated drugs, we can take another important step in the fight against drug abuse.
We’ll take another step tomorrow on National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day. Last year, we collected 26,207 pounds of prescription medications in Ohio during this event. Still, prescription drug overdoses remain the number one cause of accidental deaths in Ohio.
We know this is a fight that isn’t going to end. Whether it’s dealing with the rise of new chemicals in synthetic drugs, addressing the ongoing epidemic of prescription drug abuse, or tackling the reemergence of heroin, we have much work to do. But together, this is a battle we can win, one life at a time.
Rob Portman is a United States Senator from Ohio.