Poverty, Addiction, and a New Way Forward
Applying the principles of constructive conservatism where the war on drugs has failed.


Senator Rob Portman

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from a speech on poverty Senator Rob Portman (R., Ohio) gave at the American Enterprise Institute on Tuesday, May 13. Full remarks as prepared for delivery can be found here.

Poverty and drug abuse are topics we often talk about separately to different groups with different priorities. And yet, they are intimately tied together.

We know, of course, that drug abuse and drug addiction bedevil communities rich and poor, and a big house and a nice car does not make one immune to drug abuse.

But I can tell you that drug abuse is particularly devastating to communities that are already vulnerable, where unemployment rates are high, where people don’t have the skills or the training they need to get a good job, whether it’s the poor Appalachian counties in southern Ohio that have been devastated by the prescription-drug epidemic, or the poor neighborhoods in our inner cities that are now reeling from the surge in heroin, in overdoses, and in violence – the gangs and the crime that build up around the drug trade.

You cannot talk about poverty without talking about addiction, and addiction is something that a war on drugs is never going to solve.

Michael McGrath, Cleveland’s chief of police, recently came to a roundtable discussion I organized in his inner city. Chief McGrath was a young officer when cocaine hit the streets in the ’80s.

So 30 years later, Chief McGrath is returning to the same homes to arrest those same convicts’ children for the same crimes. And now their kids are being left without fathers, the odds against them from the beginning, the cycle of poverty starting all over again.

Fortunately, after more than a trillion dollars spent in the war on drugs and thousands of lives lost, we are starting to understand that arrest, prosecution, and incarceration are not enough.

Instead, we have to start where addiction starts and end where addiction ends.

It starts in our communities.

In 1996, when I was just starting out in Congress, one of my constituents came to see me. She told me a story about her son, Jeff Gardner. Jeff had died of a drug overdose when he was only 16 years old, a combination of marijuana and huffing gas. His mother had come into town for an anti-drug conference, because she wanted to make sure that Jeff’s death would do some good. And she wanted to know from me what we were doing to make a difference.

I thought I was ready for the question. I told her about the $15 billion a year we were spending on arrest, on prosecutions, on interdiction of drugs on the border, and eradication in places like Colombia. She asked me what good that did for Jeff, and what good it was going to do for her other son, or the kids in her community.

It was a question I couldn’t answer.

So I did some research. I talked to the experts. I tried to find out what was working well and what wasn’t working at all. Based on what I learned, I joined with community leaders around my home town of Cincinnati to found the Coalition for a Drug-Free Greater Cincinnati.

It was a broad, grassroots coalition that we built to address the needs in our neighborhoods, not with a top-down approach from Washington, but with an evidence- and research-based one influenced by what we were seeing on the ground. We focused on prevention, awareness, education.

Because of the success I saw in Cincinnati, in 1997 I authored the Drug-Free Communities Act. The results have been beyond anything I imagined. There are now similar coalitions operating around all the country, 2,000 of which have been directly supported by that legislation.

To give you some idea of their impact, in the communities where these coalitions are operating, use of alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana have declined significantly in all grade levels, with middle-school alcohol use down 20 percent, tobacco use down 26 percent, and marijuana use down 23 percent.

These coalitions are successful because they are a community asset and a community institution, not a government one. They reduce access to and availability of drugs, raise awareness about consequences of abuse, and build skills in youth, parents, and communities to deal with the drug of the moment. But one of the greatest strengths of community coalitions is the way they build partnerships within the community to change attitudes and change social norms. Because of this, they are well situated to deal with emerging drug trends, whether it’s heroin, prescription-drug abuse, or synthetic drugs.