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Lawmakers are trying to employ a multifaceted approach to address the drug problem in Ohio, Senate President Larry Obhof told a group of Ashland University students during a forum Thursday at Hawkins-Conard Student Center.
Obhof, whose 22nd District includes Ashland County, spoke for about 20 minutes about the ways Ohio's elected officials are approaching the drug epidemic, then took questions from the audience.
"We've seen what was already a significant problem just get worse and worse," Obhof said. "We actually have been pretty active in trying to combat this on a whole host of different fronts. It's not enough to say I'm going to be tough on crime and that's going to solve the problem. This is a really complex issue more so than almost anything else we deal with so we're trying to hit it from a number of different angles.
"The problem is, unfortunately, outpacing the ability of government to stop things and no matter how many laws you pass, there will always be people preying on our communities."
Obhof said the Ohio House and Senate have passed about two dozen bills targeting the drug epidemic -- from sentencing reform to ferreting out doctors and pharmacists overprescribing opiates.
Just this week, Gov. John Kasich announced new rules that limit Ohio doctors, dentists and other health professionals to prescribing only up to seven days of painkillers for adults and five days for kids and teens. And on Wednesday, the Ohio Senate passed a bill that will significantly increase the penalties for people who are selling fentanyl and carfentanil.
"If you are knowingly selling poison to someone ... we're going to treat you like somebody who sold poison," Obhof said. "We're going to put you in jail for a really long time."
The new actions are the latest steps in the state's effort to fight the opioid crisis. Ohio led the nation in opioid overdose deaths in 2014.
Q: How did we get here with this drug epidemic?
A: "I think a big part of it comes from the overprescription of painkillers. Frankly, part of it is that this is a national security issue. There is one city in Mexico, Jalisco, that is responsible for a substantial amount of the heroin in Ohio today. There are factories in China that manufacture carfentanil, which is significantly stronger than fentanyl and has no medical use for humans.
"It's a supply problem and a demand problem. I think you need to hit it from both sides."
Q: What do you recommend for someone arrested who is just a user?
A: "Arrest them, charge them, send them to treatment. Or get them in intense probation along with treatment ... and community control sanctions instead of sending them to jail for the next nine months. We've seen our recidivism rate fall pretty significantly as a result of these types of policies. That actually is working to some degree."
Q: What about new things that are much stronger than heroin?
A: "They're lacing heroin and heroin by itself is incredibly dangerous. People think they're buying heroin and it's something worse. That's been responsible for a significant number of the overdoses we've seen and that number is increasing pretty dramatically. Overdose deaths now outpace the number of deaths in automobile accidents in a given year. A big part of the reason why ... is addicts don't know what they're buying."
Q: Why is it such a big problem in the Midwest?
A: "It's centrally located. We are within 600 miles of about 80 percent of America's population. If you are going to be shipping things, Ohio is almost certainly on that list. We're on your path to the Northeast. We're on your path to the East Coast. You can get basically anywhere in the Midwest in a day's drive.
"That unfortunately puts us at the crossroads and in the crosshairs of illegitimate businesses."
Q: Why is it not a bigger national issue?
A: "It is a bigger problem in Ohio than in other places but I'd say that's generally true of the entire Midwest. I don't think Congress or the president are used to dealing with those things at the federal level. Representatives from Ohio know it's a big deal. Representatives from Indiana and Wisconsin know it's a big deal. If you represent Idaho, it might not be a big deal."
Q: Are you working to include drug education in school health courses?
A: "The governor started something called the Start Talking program and he presented us with research that showed us kids are about 50 percent less likely to use drugs if you actually educate them about the dangers of them. That was a good first start but I don't think that was enough.
"We passed House Bill 367, which requires school districts to include prescription opiate abuse prevention information in their health curriculum. Attorney General (Mike) DeWine and I released a series of recommendations for schools that are considered best practices for age-appropriate education at all grade levels related to this."
Q: How are you getting communities involved?
A: "In the areas of the 22nd District, I think there has been a strong showing of support and recognition that this is a problem everywhere. This is not a white or black problem, rich or poor problem or based on your ZIP Code. If you live in Ohio, someone you know is going to be affected by this and has been affected by this. There are active efforts in all the communities I represent to try to get that message out."
Q: How can citizens be more proactive in fighting this?
A: "That's a tough one. If somebody hides it well, I'm not sure how you get to it. If you call my office, we can get you any resources you need."
Mike Buettner can be reached at 419-281-0581, ext. 238, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.