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Editorial: Cutting drug-fighting programs a step backward

The Herald-Dispatch editorial

Maybe the news last week about potential cuts to federal initiatives aimed at combating substance abuse was just one of those mixed messages that sometimes come out of the administration of President Donald Trump. Maybe it was just a simple mistake, although the particulars emanating from Washington, D.C., would seem to indicate otherwise.

Whatever the case, let’s hope word of the reductions turns out to be a false alarm.

On Friday, The Associated Press reported that a Trump administration preliminary budget document for fiscal year 2018, which begins Oct. 1, shows a proposed 94 percent cut – yes, you read that correctly – to the budget of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. That is the lead White House office responsible for shaping policy on the nation’s opioid crisis, which has hit the Appalachian region especially hard over the past decade.

To accomplish such a reduction, the proposal would reduce the office’s staff by nearly two-thirds. More significantly regarding local impact, the budget proposal to Congress would eliminate the office’s two major grant programs, which help pay for important local activities to counter the opioid epidemic.

One of the targets of the proposed cut is ONDCP’s drug-free communities program. The Cabell County Substance Abuse Prevention Partnership, a coalition of individuals and groups aimed at working to prevent substance abuse by youth and adults, is scheduled to received $125,000 a year this year and each of the next four years from that grant program. That money supports more than half of CCSAPP’s budget, which goes toward various training endeavors such as the responsible serving of alcohol, an annual Drug Prevention Summit, partnering in the National Prescription Drug Take Backs, providing evidence-based training for the county’s schools and working with hundreds of students to instill and spread the word about drug prevention. “If President Trump wants to eliminate two-thirds of the ONDCP and zero out DFC … , how would we prevent drug abuse without prevention?” CCSAPP Director Michell Perdue asked on Friday.

The other grant program that affects drug-fighting operations locally is the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas, or HIDTA. That program supports training and operational activities at area police departments, including the Huntington Police Department, aimed at combating drug trafficking. HIDTA also supports drug-prevention efforts in local schools.

The proposed cuts to ONDCP come as a surprise because the spending bill for the remainder of the current budget year – just passed by Congress and signed by Trump this month – actually provided more funding for supporting local anti-drug abuse coalitions. This sudden change makes no sense.

A spokeswoman for the president said Trump “has made very clear that the opioid epidemic in this country is a huge priority for him” and that no final decision has been made about the drug control policy office’s budget for next year.

Perhaps the president has some plan on how to carry out that “huge priority,” maybe reallocating resources toward a new addiction task force he commissioned in March. But that has not been made clear.

In any case, scaling back on resources to help local communities fight drug abuse is not the way to go. The opioid epidemic now claims more lives in the country than any other cause of accidental death. Scaling back resources to counter that would be a mistake.

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