Sprague: Tough drug laws, effective treatment both needed

Chris Oaks spoke with Republican State Rep. Robert Sprague of Findlay.

Q: Earlier this month, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave a speech in Ohio on the opioid crisis. You were one of the first to take on this issue at the state level. From that perspective, how do you interpret the attorney general’s statement that “we must create a culture that is hostile to drug abuse”?

A: I do think there have been mixed messages in the media and popular culture, especially when it comes to kids. We have to do a better job of messaging to our young people, first of all, as well as creating a less drug-tolerant atmosphere in our society.

Q: Does that mean you side with those who believe that there is not enough accountability for addicts? That, at the end of the day, drug use is a choice that should be made unacceptable in the same way tobacco use has been, and that we have been lacking an accountability component in combating this problem?

A: I do believe taking a tougher stance on crime overall is part of curbing the larger problem. I think back to when New York City officials got aggressive about reducing their violent crime rate in the 1980s and ’90s, they did it by focusing not only on those crimes but also by going after graffiti artists, vandals, turnstile jumpers at the subway stations and the like. They sent the unmistakable message that crime wasn’t going to be tolerated and in so doing they changed the culture and the violent crime rate began to come down as well.

Q: The attorney general also announced in his speech a pilot program targeting pill mills and doctors who illegally prescribe opioids. This is the same strategy you have already worked to implement at the state level. Are they late to the party? Is it all talk without substance? Has there been enough support from the federal level to effectively combat this problem?

A: It’s true that we passed legislation six years ago addressing pill mills and bad actors within the health care system, which I believe laid the groundwork for the attorney general to take the next steps that he talked about. With respect to support at the federal level, let me put it this way. We’re almost to the point where we’ve gone beyond a heroin problem to a fentanyl epidemic. This is poison that’s produced illicitly in China, sold to gangs in Mexico and then smuggled into the United States for distribution. And that’s not something we can address at the state level. Until we as a nation get a handle on that problem, we can’t solve anything.

Q: Critics say that the attorney general’s stance of “getting tough” with more prosecutions and stiffer sentences is a return to failed policies of the past, where a lot of people were locked up without making a significant dent in the drug war. How effective can these strategies be without more resources for treatment programs?

A: I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I think that’s a false choice. It’s not one or the other, it’s both. I believe you need to have significant consequences for individuals using drugs because it does serve not only as a deterrent, but also an impetus for addicts to own up to their problem.

But, at the same time, we do need to make available effective treatment for those who are ready to address their addiction. So the reality is that we need to ramp up our efforts in both areas.

Q: Many of those same critics also point out that a rollback of the Medicaid expansion, which the administration supports, would have a devastating impact on those very same addiction services.

A: Exactly, which is why in the Ohio House we looked at a Medicaid freeze that would exempt anyone in addiction treatment and recovery, and anyone with a mental health issue or diagnosis, so that those individuals can continue to get help through the Medicaid system.

It should be pointed out that Medicaid doesn’t pay for detox, which is the very first thing that needs to happen in this process, so we also put state money into that gap with a goal of opening up nine regional detox centers around Ohio. Furthermore, we put in place more mental health crisis services for those with an underlying mental health condition that contributes to their addiction.

“Good Mornings!” with Chris Oaks airs from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. weekdays on WFIN, 1330 kHz. He can be reached by email at, or at 419-422-4545.


About the Author