Twenty to 25 people die of drug overdoses in Ohio every week.
This was just one of the statistics U.S. Senator Rob Portman cited during his Common Hour talk on Tuesday in the Bolton Theater.
The senator spoke about the problems presented by heroin and prescription drugs in Ohio and around the country and the relationship between drugs and human trafficking.
Portman, brought to campus by Student Lectureships and the Center for the Study of American Democracy (CSAD), helped author the Comprehensive Care and Recovery Act of 2015 (CARA). The bill, which calls the recent spike in heroin and prescription drug abuse an “epidemic,” includes proposals for educating people about the dangers of drug abuse and focuses on treatment. It was proposed to the Senate last February and previously in 2014. The bill is currently in committee.
Portman, who is from Cincinnati, knows Gambier well; his brother, William ’77, and several friends from high school went to Kenyon. In addition, his mother, Joan H’89, served on the Board of Trustees from 1975 to 1989.
Before getting on to his main topic, Portman reflected on Gambier, and even began to ask President Sean Decatur what was happening to the “Kenyon Grill,” an apparent reference to the Gambier Grill, which the College recently announced would close by mid-summer. He quickly moved on, saying, “I shouldn’t talk about that right?”
Portman explained that fire and ambulance departments across the state — and especially in rural communities such as those in Knox County — are now primarily responding to calls related to drug abuse.
In his speech, Portman acknowledged advocating treatment and rehabilitation for drug addicts is not common among conservative Republican politicians. “I don’t think we should lock up people for drugs because I don’t think it works,” he said, though he did mention he does not support drug legalization and supports incarceration as a means to keep people dedicated to rehabilitation.
Josh McClain ’19 said he was glad to hear a Republican senator approach drug addiction from the standpoint of rehabilitation rather than incarceration.
“I was impressed by how he approached the issue,” McClain said. “I think his views were nuanced and I thought he was pretty fair.”
Human trafficking is also a policy focus of Portman’s. He is the founder of the U.S. Senate Caucus to End Human Trafficking and last year proposed three anti-human trafficking bills that the Senate passed.
Portman spoke about how drug abuse and human trafficking can be linked, with traffickers often using drugs to pay and control their victims. The anti-trafficking work Portman has done has in part focused on the Internet as an efficient way for traffickers to operate.
After finishing his speech, Portman sat on stage with Katie Knowlton ’16, co-president of Student Lectureships and a former intern for Portman, and answered questions audience members had written on notecards and handed in during the speech.
Portman responded to questions on the importance of prevention and drug treatment and spoke about how much people can influence those around them, citing cigarette smoking as an example of how public campaigns designed to shun bad behavior can largely reduce such behaviors.
Kenyon College Democrats issued a statement in response to the speech on its Facebook page, thanking the senator for his visit and his work on drug rehabilitation, but reminding their audience that Portman has cut funding for drug rehabilitation through CARA (but did not cite a source for this information). The Kenyon Dems also challenged the senator on his “regressive agenda” regarding equal pay for women, student debt and gun control.
Portman is serving his first term in the U.S. Senate, having previously served 12 years in the House of Representatives. He is up for reelection this year and faces a probable general-election opponent in former Democratic Ohio governor Ted Strickland.