Drug agency cuts could gut programs in Philly, N.J.

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President Trump’s administration is reportedly considering nearly defunding a federal agency that pays for several anti-drug initiatives in the region: a long-running anti-trafficking initiative and three community drug-prevention coalitions in Philadelphia.

Earlier this month, reports surfaced that Trump, preparing to release a detailed budget proposal by the end of the month, was considering gutting the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the agency that sets federal drug policy.

The office also funds the Philadelphia/Camden High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a $4.9 million program aimed at coordinating law enforcement approaches to sales of illegal substances in the area. Philadelphia receives funding from the endangered federal office for its three Drug-Free Communities, community-run youth outreach programs in West Philadelphia and South Philadelphia.

“Everyone has said that this is the most horrendous crisis we’ve had in our country, ever, around drug overdosing,” said Roland Lamb, the deputy commissioner of Philadelphia’s Office of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services. “And they’re talking about cutting the very agencies you need to work in the community in terms of building solutions for this.”

The programs reportedly targeted are not without their critics – the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates against enforcement-heavy drug policy and “Just Say No”-style prevention programs, has said it supports the cuts.

Initiatives like the one targeting drug-trafficking areas have been criticized for scooping up low-level dealers rather than going after big fish, and some Drug-Free Communities wound up paying for ineffective drug-prevention efforts, said Grant Smith, a deputy director at the alliance.

Local officials say cutting funds to those programs would halt the progress made in combatting addiction and drug sales in the region, and destroy crucial relationships between federal and local authorities.

Drug-Free Communities are relatively new in Philadelphia – winning funding for one requires finding a dozen community organizations willing to participate in a drug prevention coalition, and then applying for the necessary grants. City officials say funding for the three drug-free communities in Philadelphia is secure. But Lamb’s goal is to eventually launch 100.

The Drug-Free Communities are only three years into a five-year grant, so results are hard to quantify, said Michelle Heyward of the Philadelphia Mental Health Care Corp., who recruits local organizations to apply for the program. Still, she said, participating youths have traveled to leadership training sessions and helped city officials understand more about the local rhythms of drug sales and use.

“We have more community partners, we’re getting more youth involved and connecting with parents,” she said.

The Philadelphia area’s drug-trafficking zone was founded in 1995 and covered Philadelphia and Camden. Under the burgeoning heroin crisis, it has expanded to include larger swaths of New Jersey and the Pennsylvania suburbs, and, most recently, New Castle County, Del. It focuses mainly on cutting down the drug supply.

The program’s executive director, Jeremiah Daly, said its initiatives seized $30 million in illegal wholesale drugs and $13.5 million in drug profits in 2015. Those efforts led to the arrest of 12,000 fugitives, 374 of whom faced charges “directly related to drug trafficking,” Daly said. Virtually all were felony charges, he said.

But he said the coalition’s heroin-response strategy, which has been in place for the last year and a half, was also geared toward public health, partnering law enforcement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and public health advocates.

“It’s about changing not only the language around [drug control] but the mental framework around it, and recognizing that it’s more than a crime,” Daly said. “It really has enlightened both communities of professionals and is making strides that I think we’ll see the benefits of in the next year or two. I’d hate to see that end up on the scrap heap.”

Under the later years of the Obama administration, the federal drug policy office did shift toward a more public health-driven approach, said Smith, of the Drug Policy Alliance – and showed how a federal agency could streamline prevention initiatives across government and get more people into addiction treatment.

Given the Trump administration’s hard-line rhetoric on drugs – including Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ plan to return to lengthy, 1980s-era drug sentencing guidelines — Smith said he believes Trump would have used the office to push “punitive drug policies.”

“It’s probably best to defund ONDCP precisely because we know what much of its history has been,” he said, “and we know that President Trump and members of his cabinet have taken steps to revamp the war on drugs.”

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