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Making a difference By combating the heroin epidemic

At a recent town hall in Darke County, I asked those in attendance how many of them had family members or friends who had been impacted by addiction. More than half the hands went up. Sadly, I wasn’t surprised. It was just the latest example of how the abuse of heroin and prescription drugs is impacting our communities.

More than 2,000 Ohioans now die every year because of drug overdoses from opioids, heroin or prescription drugs. More than 120 Americans die every day. It’s become an epidemic, and it seems to be growing worse, not better.

Three years ago, I set out to do something about opioids at the federal level. I have been involved in addressing drug abuse for more than two decades, including starting an anti-drug community coalition in my own hometown of Cincinnati and passing legislation that focuses on prevention and education. But this opioid epidemic is different and the grip of addiction more devastating.

I traveled throughout Ohio listening to those in the trenches who work in prevention or treat addicts in recovery. I heard from law enforcement, health care professionals, families who had lost loved ones to this disease, and recovering addicts themselves.

We then convened five conferences in Washington, DC, bringing in experts from Ohio and around the country to discuss topics ranging from the need for better education and prevention, to the best practices on treatment, to dealing with the specific challenges of our veterans, and to helping the increasing number of babies who are tragically born with addiction.

Informed and inspired by those discussions, I co-authored the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, also known as CARA, with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. Our goal with this legislation is to begin to help turn the tide of addiction and save lives.

I’m proud to report that the United States Senate recently passed CARA on a rare, bipartisan vote of 94-1. The measure takes a number of critical steps toward combating this epidemic including, first and foremost, by ensuring that resources are devoted to evidence-based prevention, treatment, and recovery programs that work. Here is some of what the bill does:

CARA expands prevention and educational efforts – particularly those aimed at teens, parents and other caretakers – to prevent prescription opioid abuse and the use of heroin in the first place.

CARA increases the number of disposal sites for unwanted prescription medications to keep them out of the hands of our children and adolescents.

CARA expands the availability of the overdose reversal drug naloxone to law enforcement agencies and first responders to save more lives.

CARA creates new prescription drug monitoring programs to help states monitor and track prescription drug diversion and over-prescribing.

CARA identifies and treats individuals suffering from substance use disorders in our criminal justice system and expands diversion and education efforts to give individuals a second chance.

CARA devotes additional resources to proven treatment and recovery programs at the state and local level for the millions of addicts who need help.

CARA helps women and babies by expanding treatment options for expectant and postpartum women struggling with addiction.

Lastly, CARA provides additional help to veterans, setting up more Veterans Treatment Courts that help break the cycle of drug abuse through a program of rigorous treatment and personal accountability.

This is the first time in decades the Senate has had a real debate on drug addiction policy – how to prevent it, treat it, and ultimately help people recover. The basis of our legislation is that we should start treating addiction like other illnesses. I believe this will help break the stigma associated with drug addiction to get more people into recovery and a healthier, more productive life, helping them achieve their God-given potential.

CARA now has the support of more than 130 national stakeholders in the public health, law enforcement, criminal justice, and drug policy fields, including dozens in Ohio. While the Senate has passed this bill, our work is from over. It’s time for the House of Representatives to act so we can get this bill to the president’s desk and signed into law. I will not rest until we accomplish this goal.

The challenge of addiction will ultimately be solved by our families and our communities coming together, united by a common goal and our shared faith that with the right tools we can succeed. CARA makes the federal government a better partner in that noble effort.

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Rob Portman

Contributing Columnist

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