Policy Review Banner

Addicted to Failure

Sunday, September 1, 1996

A year ago, a 16-year-old constituent of mine, Jeff Gardner, died from a lethal combination of "huffing" gasoline and smoking marijuana. After Jeff's death, his mother, who was aware of a much larger drug problem in the community, called a parent's meeting at the local high school. No one came. She told me her story and asked how her representative in Congress was going to help address the growing drug problem. It was a fair question, but I was not satisfied with the response I could give her.

          Members of Congress take seriously their responsibility to represent their constituents in Washington -- by legislating, by voting, and when appropriate, by securing federal funding for state and local concerns. Despite spending $13 billion annually on drug-control programs, however, drug abuse is rising dramatically among our youth.


We'll continue to lose the war on drugs until national politicians show local leadership


          A big part of the problem has been the president's failure to show any leadership on this issue (until his wise appointment of General Barry McCaffrey as the new drug czar). In fact, President Clinton hurt the antidrug effort by cutting the Office of National Drug Control Policy from 147 to 25 full-time positions, by hiring a surgeon general who advocated legalization of drugs, by cutting funding for interdiction efforts, and by sending confusing messages about the stigma of illegal drug use. It is no surprise, then, that after dramatic reductions in drug use during the decade before Clinton took office, drug use has nearly doubled among teenagers during his administration. The evidence shows that national leadership is critical in reducing drug abuse.

          Jeff's mother wanted that leadership, but in a manner that would help her in Goshen, Ohio. Spending more federal dollars on drug-control programs was unlikely to directly touch this mother's life. Neither would it encourage other parents in her community to address the drug problem. How could I really help? By rolling up my sleeves and providing leadership where it matters most--at the local community level.

          Members of Congress are in a unique position to mobilize people in their own communities. By the nature of our jobs, we deal with every sector of the districts we represent. We can also bring statewide and nationwide expertise and resources to bear on a problem. And we can draw the attention of news media that is so critical to educating and mobilizing neighborhoods to solve their toughest social problems. What I've initiated -- and what I'm challenging my colleagues in Congress to embrace -- is a new model of governance that recognizes the limitations of Washington-based solutions, while drawing on the resources of citizens locally.

Cause for Alarm

          If there is any public-policy area that demands a new, more effective approach, it is drug abuse. Recent Gallup polls show that crime and drugs are Americans' top concerns. When you ask parents and children what is the most serious issue facing youth today, both groups cite drug abuse.

          National statistics show there is indeed cause for alarm. After a decade of progress in the war on drugs, the number of young people using drugs began to increase in 1992; use among young kids showed the sharpest increase. LSD use is now at its highest level since 1975, when it was first measured. Since 1992, the number of children between 12 and 17 using marijuana has nearly doubled. To put the problem in perspective, in the average class of 25 eighth-graders (13- and 14-year-olds), five are now using marijuana. And drug abuse is implicated in other social problems -- violent crime, dropout rates, and domestic violence, to name a few.

          Greater Cincinnati has a drug problem that mirrors the startling national statistics. This region of the country experienced a similar decline in drug use in the 1980s. But by the early 1990s, it began to skyrocket. Why?

          I'm convinced that the resurgence stems in part from the disappearance both of effective national leadership in the fight against drug use and of the media attention that usually follows such leadership. This attention is vital to teaching children that drug abuse is both dangerous and wrong.

          No one makes this point more authoritatively than Jim Burke, the chairman of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. It was Burke's group in the 1980s that launched the most extensive and successful public-service campaign in the country. Burke also believes strongly that, while the message must emanate from our national leaders and engage the opinion shapers at every level, this issue is best addressed at the community level.

          I decided we could not afford to wait for another tragedy to prompt us to action. Over the last year and a half, I have spearheaded an effort to establish the Coalition for a Drug-Free Greater Cincinnati. This effort is not about flashy press conferences and slick brochures. It's a serious, long-term initiative that brings together for the first time community activists already involved in the antidrug effort, key business figures, religious leaders, the media, parents, young people, law enforcement officials, and others. Our aim is to develop and implement a comprehensive, community-based strategy to reduce drug abuse in our region.

Mobilizing Citizens

          How do you start a coalition? First, you do a lot of listening at all levels -- to kids and parents, grass-roots activists, and state and national leaders in the field. Over an 18-month period, we led or helped organize countless meetings in all sorts of settings, from living rooms to classrooms, and from boardrooms to community centers.

          We made it clear through the amount of time we devoted to the effort--more than 1,000 man-hours over 18 months -- and through our inclusive, nonpartisan approach that this was not about re-election campaigns or shallow publicity. The reaction from the community to this new kind of leadership has so far been very positive. Every television station, every major radio station, the two daily newspapers, and our largest outdoor advertising company are all running antidrug public service announcements and ads. Some of the radio spots are from a popular local rock band. We know that such messages help reduce drug abuse, and Greater Cincinnati now has one of the most aggressive antidrug media campaigns in the country.

          Such messages, however, are not enough. The data shows that most people who use drugs go to work every day. Also, work is a good place to find parents who need counsel on dealing with teenage drug use. So we had to engage businesses. We took an idea proposed by one of our national prevention experts and brought it to our coalition in Greater Cincinnati. The result? One of our largest health-care providers and the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation will offer, for the first time ever, financial discounts to businesses that adopt certified drug-free workplace programs.

          The program makes sense. Businesses like it because health-care and workers' compensation coverage costs less. Health-care providers and the bureau like it because drug-free workplace programs do result in a healthier work force and fewer medical and workers' compensation claims. Communities like it because it helps keep workers drug free, encourages drug abusers to seek treatment, and educates people about the dangers of drug abuse.

          We also brought PRIDE, a premier national parents' group, to one of our school districts to train more than 600 parents in taking practical steps to keep their kids drug free. This training will be replicated in every school district in the region. Parents are signing up in droves.

          We mobilized our local clergy to incorporate an antidrug message in their sermons every six months and to follow up with an educational slide presentation that we developed. We have established a speakers' bureau to supplement the D.A.R.E. program in the schools, and to help get the message out in community centers and student clubs. The list of initiatives proposed by the local community, brought to the coalition by state and national leaders, and facilitated by congressional leadership, goes on and on.

          In addition, I have brought to Greater Cincinnati national and state prevention experts to bolster the local effort, including the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, and Parents' Resource Institute for Drug Education. I have also brought the president's drug czar, Senator Bob Dole, and Speaker Newt Gingrich to Cincinnati to see the coalition's work firsthand.

          The public rightly expects the federal government to do something about drug abuse, which diminishes and threatens the lives of so many of our young people. And the federal government clearly has an important role in combating drug abuse: protecting our borders and interdicting drugs from other countries, strengthening our federal criminal-justice system, and providing federal assistance for the best prevention and treatment programs. Despite a significant federal effort, however, our country is still seeing dramatic increases in drug use among our teenagers. In the last t

          wo years alone, use of illegal drugs has increased 50 percent. We need a new approach.

          Many of my colleagues are beginning to agree. At least 15 other members of Congress are establishing, or supporting, similar community coalition efforts in their regions. The entire House of Representatives -- in an unusual show of election-year bipartisanship -- recently endorsed this community-based initiative.

          That's a much more significant step than cynics imagine. Although the public has become disenchanted with the federal government's ability to address our worst social problems, there's still an abiding faith in a community's ability to fashion solutions close to the needs of ordinary people. And members of Congress can still be a catalyst. Although the public seems to distrust Congress as a whole, individual members are generally well respected in their districts.

          The point is that members of Congress can and should inspire citizens to action. We've heard about the need to revitalize civil society. Well, here's a concrete example of how members of Congress can do that in a way that actually touches people's lives -- not by passing more laws in Washington, but by using their bully pulpits to engage their communities back home. This is how we as national leaders can best exert--and sustain -- national leadership over the long haul.

          And for the sake of the Jeff Gardners in our communities, we'd better get started.

About the Author

More from Policy Review