Portman Urges Administration to Reverse Course, Support the Office of National Drug Control Policy & His Drug Free Communities Act
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Following last week’s report that the new administration was proposing cuts to the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) today sent a letter to Office of Management & Budget (OMB) Director Mick Mulvaney and delivered remarks on the Senate floor urging the administration to reconsider these cuts. During his speech, Portman discussed how the Drug Free Communities (DFC) program, which is funded by the ONDCP, is critical in the fight against the drug epidemic, and that it is especially needed now in the midst of the worst drug epidemic our country has ever faced. Portman, who’s bipartisan Comprehensive Addiction & Recovery Act is currently being implemented, has now delivered 35 speeches on the Senate floor since the start of last year in his efforts to pass meaningful legislation in the fight against heroin and prescription drug addiction.
A transcript of the speech can be found below and you can watch the video here.
“I rise today to continue a discussion we’ve had on this floor over the last year or so on this issue of opioids. That would be addiction to heroin, prescription drugs, and now this new form of synthetic heroin that’s coming into our communities called fentanyl or carfentanil. Sadly, I must tell you that things are not getting better. In fact, we see more and more evidence in the states that we represent and our communities of not just addiction but overdoses and deaths. Fentanyl in particular is more deadly than heroin—30 to 50 more times powerful—and is resulting in not just more overdoses but more deaths per overdose. This has become a crisis to the point that it’s the number one cause of accidental death in my home state of Ohio and around the country surpassing car accidents.
“This is the 35th time I’ve come to the floor in the last year or so to talk about this issue and what we ought to do. We’ve made progress. In the last year alone we passed legislation including the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act to help with prevention, treatment, recovery, help our law enforcement and other first responders with Narcan to be able to reduce the number of deaths, this miracle drug that changes the overdoses and reverses the overdoses to be able to save lives. We’ve also passed the CURES legislation which sends money straight back to the states that will help to provide the treatment that is so badly needed. Probably eight out of 10 people who are addicted are not receiving treatment and sadly there’s a revolving door where people are coming under the grip of this addiction, committing crimes, going to prison, getting out, getting back into the addiction again and back into the criminal justice system once again. So this legislation that we have passed is now starting to be implemented. It takes a little while for things to get moving around here and I’m happy to say that the states have now received some of this funding, that some of the programs, about half of them in the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act are now implemented. I urge the administration to implement the other half of the programs and I’ve done that on the floor every time I’ve come to the floor over the last few months.
“But unfortunately, Mr. President, I also have to come to the floor today to talk about something that is going to make it harder to address this issue, should it become a reality. As some of you may have known, recently it was reported that there was a document from the White House Office of Management and Budget saying that the White House is considering cutting funding dramatically for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the ONDCP. This is the office that coordinates the drug issue for the White House, the administration. The proposal that was leaked to the media said that it would be a cut from $388 million a year to $24 million a year. That’s a cut of 95 percent. What does that mean? It means the staff would be obviously reduced dramatically. They’ve got 33 people who would lose their jobs who are out there every day on the front lines trying to use the relatively small number of people to expand this effort all over the country. It would eliminate a lot of grant programs. Office administrators including what is called the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program, or HIDTA, and then also a program called the Drug Free Communities support program.
“I want to touch on those two programs to make the point as to how important they are hoping that the administration is hearing from us and hoping that our colleagues on both sides of the aisle will help us to ensure that this proposal does not become reality, that we don’t in fact end up at a time when we have an unprecedented drug crisis in this country; the worst drug epidemic that we have had in our lifetimes, that at that time we would be pulling back on these important programs.
“Why does this matter? Well, again, having a Drug Czar—which is what the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy is called—is really important to coordinate the efforts. In fact, it’s cost effective to have a Drug Czar rather than having all different agencies and departments sort of competing and sometimes in duplication with each other, to have one person in the White House in charge talking about the importance of this. President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan established the Drug Czar. The reason they did it is they wanted to be sure that America and the White House was speaking with one voice on this issue. And I’ve known every Drug Czar since then. I’ve known every one of them over the last -- gosh, what would that be? About 30 years. And, you know, it’s a job that I think is incredibly important to fill with the right person to get out there and deliver this message that it is important that we work together on prevention and education to try to keep people out of drugs altogether and then should people become addicted, how do we maximize the chances of their success by getting them into treatment and recovery.
“The program that I mentioned a minute ago, the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area is one that pretty much every senator knows about. Why? Because in pockets of every state there are areas where you have a particular problem with drugs. This program, the High Intensity Drug Trafficking program, does something unique. It says, okay, we’re going to put federal law enforcement together with state law enforcement and local law enforcement to really intensely focus on this issue at the local level. And that, as you know, is necessary because so much of this is interstate, even international, and by having this intense focus there’s been enormous success in my state and states around the country. Under the program you have to have one full-time law enforcement officer at the federal level, state level, and the local level. What I have found back home is that typically you have a sheriff or police chief who runs this locally and has a lot of his officers involved but really is able to maximize what he or she is able to do because you have this involvement from the state highway patrol, you have this involvement from the F.B.I., you have this coordination.
“Ohio HIDTA alone has removed $90 million of illicit drugs from our streets. It’s apprehended more than 4,000 fugitives involved in drug trafficking operations. Think about the difference that makes. It makes our communities safer and it ultimately is going to save a lot of lives. So I think this is one that’s really working. If you ask your law enforcement locally about it, they will tell you that if they don’t have a HIDTA grant, they probably wish they did. It’s very competitive. Not everybody can get one. But if you can show that you can use the money effectively and that you have a really serious drug problem in your area, having that HIDTA program is really important.
“The second program I mentioned is called this Drug Free Communities support program, and what does this do? This supports community anti-drug coalitions all around the country. Often when people ask me about, what’s the solution to this problem, why are we in the situation we’re in, I turn to prevention and education because, if you think about it, once you get into the funnel of addiction, it is very costly and very difficult. Wouldn’t it be better if we had better programs out there as, frankly, we did back in the 1980s and even the 1990s to tell young people and to tell others why it is such a mistake to get into this drug issue, why they must do everything they can do to avoid—in the case of heroin and prescription drugs and other opioids—taking these painkillers, these prescription drugs that are addictive, to the point that you become addicted, which is so often where the heroin addiction and the overdoses start. Four out of five heroin addicts in the country started with prescription drugs, they say. And getting that information out there, that awareness is incredibly important. That’s what this Drug-Free Communities program is about.
“I got involved in this program early on through a personal experience. I was a first-year member of the House of Representatives, back 23 years ago, and a woman came to see me whose son had died of an overdose. And she came to see me because she wanted to talk about her experience and what we were going to do about it. At the time Bill Clinton was president, and I went to an event where both President Clinton and I were given a gold ID bracelet. The young man’s name was Jeffrey Gardner. I put Jeffrey Gardner’s ID bracelet on and then I prepared for this meeting with this mother who was obviously very upset and she was there with her younger son. She came to my office and I was prepared for her. My staff had done all the research and we knew there was about $15 billion a year being spent on drug interdiction, interdicting drugs coming from other countries, incarcerations and prosecutions, eradication of drugs overseas in places like Columbia where a lot of cocaine was being grown at that time. I told her that. I said your taxpayer dollars are being used well to fight this battle and this was what’s happening with your dollars. She looked at me and said ‘how does that help me? I went to my church, I went to my school to get them to help, to mobilize people to provide more prevention and education resources and get the word out, and they were both in denial. They said, this doesn’t happen here.’ She said, ‘I went to my neighbors and tried to get a community meeting together and people didn’t show up.’ She said, ‘how does interdicting drugs help me? How does the work on eradication overseas help me?’ I did more research and looked into it further and talked to people around the country who are experts on this and found out where there was this community of a support network, bringing in all sectors of the community, it really made a difference to reduce drug abuse.
“So we started this program, and this program, the Drug Free Communities Act, has to be made up of all sectors of the community. We’re talking about the religious community, faith leaders, very important, but also teachers, police officers, parents, doctors, other community leaders who come together with this focus, intense focus on education and prevention. The program we put together has real accountability. You know, I am a Republican. I believe in accountability. I want to be sure tax dollars are being used wisely. To receive funding under this program, coalitions are required to be in existence for six months before they can even apply, get on their feet and be sure they’re working. It is the only federal drug abuse prevention that requires that, by the way.
“The coalitions are required to go through a year-long training academy to ensure they have the skills necessary to effectively reduce youth drug use rates. And they have to have data to show that their efforts are actually working. There have to be performance measures in place. In these coalitions, there are surveys done in schools to see, what are the results? And these coalitions are made up of people who run the front lines. They know their community better than anybody else does. That’s why they’re more effective than anybody else. They know how to reach people in that setting. They know how to respond quickly when problems begin. In communities with these coalitions, the use of alcohol, tobacco, prescription drugs, marijuana, cocaine by our young people has declined. Alcohol, 32 percent decline, tobacco, 38 percent decline. Other drugs including prescription drugs, 21 percent decline.
“So these things work. And I must say I’ve seen it firsthand because before drafting this legislation I drafter my own coalition called the Coalition for a Drug Free Cincinnati. 23 years ago we started this coalition and we did it with, again, all members of the community. In my case I reached out to the First Lady, Hope Taft, of our state, also to a religious leader in our community, Damon Lynch, Jr., one of the most respected community leaders, at that time head of the Baptist Ministers Conference, former CEO of Procter & Gamble John Pepper. So we brought in the business community as well. And we established this coalition not thinking that we were going to end up applying for federal grant money—because there was no federal grant program then—but that we should focus on how we could ensure we could actually make a difference. We set up a survey that went to two-thirds of the schools in our community that asked these questions about drug use so we would know our efforts were working or not working, as the case might be, and how to target our efforts towards parents and teachers.
“We spent a lost time in the faith community but also with coaches and athletic directors and this program is still going. It is called PreventionFIRST! I chaired it for nine years. I was on the board of the coalition, again, before I ran for the Senate. And I know it works because I’ve seen it. We’ve gotten good results. The coalition tells me that since 2000, alcohol use among young people they work with in Cincinnati has gone done 46 percent, tobacco use 61 percent, marijuana use 22 percent. Since 2012, which is when we started focusing on this prescription drug issue, there’s been a decline by 29 percent in the use of prescription drugs by our young people.
“So I think, you know, this program, which by the way is about $90 million last year. As someone told me recently who is a distinguished military officer, that’s about what we charge to keep lights on in part of the Pentagon every day. Not that I’m not for more and smarter defense spending, I am, but $90 million is what we’re talking about for this program at the time of the worst drug crisis in the history of our country.
“So I just think this impact, which I’ve seen, really works. It means less crime, less strain on our health care system, more productivity in school, more productivity in work. More people who can pass the drug test and go to work. That benefits all of us. It saves taxpayer dollars.
“The success we had as this coalition again led me to the legislation, a Democratic congressman from Michigan, Sandy Levin, and I introduced legislation, bipartisan legislation in the House. Here in the Senate, the leaders are still here who were the leaders of this legislation and continue to support it. That’s Senator Chuck Grassley and Senator Patrick Leahy, again, a bipartisan group. The bill, the Drug Free Communities Act, is, again—based on these leaked documents from the administration—one of the programs they proposed defunding altogether.
“I am hopeful that this legislation, the Drug Free Communities Act—which has really worked; provided funding that has spawned over 2,000 coalitions around the country; today it mobilizes more than 9,000 volunteers all over the country—I’m hopeful that we won’t be defunding this program but instead focusing more on the issue of prevention and education. That’s going to be the long term solution to this drug problem. Yes, we have to get treatment to those who need it. But if we’re not working on prevention, awareness and education, the issue of drug abuse is going to continue to get worse in my view.
“I am a former Budged Director and I understand it’s a tough job to look at all the different competing priorities when you’re trying to save taxpayer dollars. I get that. But I also get that we don’t want to take a program like this that’s actually working, that has all these accountability measures in place to make sure that taxpayer dollars are being spent right and to get rid of it at a time when we have this growing crisis in our country.
“You know, when I first got involved in this issue 23 years ago, I became convinced pretty quickly that one reason the drug issue had raised its ugly head in the 1990s was because we took our eye off the ball. I think in the 1980s under the leadership of President Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan and Bill Bennett, who did an awesome job as Drug Czar, we made real progress on particularly the issue of cocaine. And I think there was sort of a sense that we’d solved that problem and it was time to focus on other things. And so we took our eye off the ball. And that’s why you saw in the 1990s when the Drug Free Communities Act legislation was necessary that there was a big increase in drug use particularly among our young people. So I was always worried that we might do that again, that when there was a reduction in drug use we might say, well, that problem is behind us. Let’s move on to the next one. The problem is never behind us, sadly. It is like the tide: it just keeps coming in. You have to keep our focus on it.
“I never expected that at a time when we would have a substantial increase in drug use, in crime, in overdoses, in deaths—which is what we’ve experienced here in this country over the past few years—that we would cut these programs. I just didn’t imagine that. I am concerned about it. We can’t take our eye off the ball, particularly at a time like this. We have to make sure we are supporting these programs that work.
“Let me show you a chart that just tells us where we are today. This is the number of drug overdose deaths in our great country from 1999 to 2015, the most recent year for which we have data. Look at this line here. This is opioid painkillers. This is fentanyl. This is heroin. And you see this incredible increase. Sadly, I would tell you, in 2016-2017, it keeps going up. This year we’ve had more overdose deaths over the first few months than we had in the same period last year. In fact, I’ll give you one example. In Cleveland, Ohio, in the last ten months, we’ve had more overdose deaths from fentanyl than we had in the previously ten years. So sadly it is not getting better. It is getting worse.
“Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, surpassing car accidents. This is again a troubling chart, but we need to look at it. We hear a lot about homicides. And gun homicides in particular. We hear about car crashes. Here is an example of HIV-AIDS in 1995, this is the height of the HIV-AIDS crisis, when all of us acted appropriately. Here we are in drug overdoses in 2015, far worse than any of these. So between prescription painkillers, heroin, synthetic forms of heroin, drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in America. According to CDC, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, more Americans die from drug overdoses in 2015, again, than died in the AIDS epidemic in 1995.
“A recent story in the New York Times saying more than four times as many people dying every day from this epidemic than were dying at the peak of the crack epidemic. Another way to look at it, sadly, is that more people died in the last three years than died in the Vietnam War.
“Now, those are tough things to compare, but the point is this is not the time for us to be gutting these programs. Fortunately, you know, we have these programs in place to help. Let’s use them to try to encourage more prevention, more education. Here’s a chart that just shows where heroin and fentanyl is. Again, 1999 up to 2015. This is heroin, this is fentanyl. Look at this spike we’ve seen over the last few years. That’s what we’re dealing with. That’s the reality. That’s what happening in our communities, on the streets.
“You might ask yourself, why we would want to to cut this back at this point. My understanding is that some have argued that we don’t need the program. They’ve said that this program is duplicative because we have other programs now including great legislation that was passed last year I mentioned earlier, the 21st Century CURES Act. In fact, the author of that legislation just joined us here on the floor, Senator Alexander from Tennessee. They said the Drug Free Communities Act may be a duplication of that CURES program. It is an entirely different program. Again, it is not $90 million a year. CURES is $500 million a year needed right now. I was a strong supporter of the CURES Act and I again thank my colleague for working with some of us who have been focused on this issue, as he has, and to get that legislation passed on a bipartisan basis.
“The 21st Century CURES Act does provide $500 million, but it provides it for this year and next year, two years. It is a temporary increase in funding to deal with a real crisis. This will help fill the gaps but it does not ensure that one dollar of that money goes towards the evidence-based prevention we talked about today.
“Second, these programs have distinct goals. The CURES grants can be used however a state wants. That’s appropriate. In Ohio I know Governor Kasich and his state legislature are focused on using it in a smart way focused mostly on treatment which is badly needed. Noted earlier, eight out of ten people who are addicted aren’t getting the treatment they need. We need more treatment. In some communities there is not the treatment available. But the Drug Free Communities Act is specifically focused on this prevention through education at the community level. Funding goes directly to these coalitions I talked about and their focus is on prevention. It is not duplication. One is a prevention program at the community level. One is an open-ended grant to the states and there is no other federal program that funds evidence-based prevention at the community level and has these accountability measures in it than this one.
“The accountability measures that we talked about are really important and that again distinguishes it from CURES or anything else. We require that communities provide matching funds, a one-to-one match. If a dollar of federal tax dollars goes out it’s got to be matched by a dollar of nonfederal tax dollars just to get the funding. We put a cap on administrative expenses. Wouldn’t it be great if we had that in all federal programs? If you want funding, you’ve got to keep your administrative cost below eight percent. That ensures that we maximize the amount of funding that goes to these programs. We specifically included strict accountability measures to ensure the highest level of support in solving the substance abuse crisis that every community faces. So, these programs are effective, they use taxpayer dollars well. Cutting them just doesn’t make sense.
“One of the reasons I believe President Trump was elected was that he had the courage and the foresight to talk about this issue on the campaign trail. He talked about addiction, whether he was in New Hampshire, whether he was in Ohio or other states, where we have a high level of heroin, prescription drug, fentanyl abuse, addiction. He spoke with a passion about this and the toll that it’s exacted on our citizens and the devastation to our communities. I think that was one reason that he was elected. One reason. And he focused on how we are going to stop this epidemic. This proposal—apparently put forward by members of his administration—runs counter to what he talked about during that campaign.
“Earlier today my original House cosponsor of the Drug Free Communities Act, Sandy Levin sent a letter to the Office of Management and Budget and to Director Mick Mulvaney to urge him not to pursue this course of action. More importantly, Mr. President, today more than 219 nonpartisan public health groups, experts like the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association, Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America and other groups sent a letter to the White House expressing their support for the work of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. I’d like to ask unanimous consent to enter this letter into the record at this point in my comments. These groups know that the proposed cuts would undermine our anti-drug efforts, again at a time when we need them more than ever. So I ask my colleagues to join me in urging the O.M.B. Director and the folks in the White House who are making these decisions not to take this course of action, but rather to support our proven community anti-drug coalitions and support ONDCP in doing their important work at a time of a growing drug epidemic. We’ve never needed these programs more than right now. Thank you, Mr. President. I yield back my time.”