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Anne Arundel students talk opioid abuse with Trump's acting 'drug czar'

Acting Director of National Drug Control Policy Richard J. Baum talks about drugs during a listening and discussion session with SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017 at Meade High School.

Around a makeshift roundtable inside Meade High School, a group of Anne Arundel County high school students flanked Richard Baum, the acting director for the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Known more commonly as the current “drug czar” for the Trump administration, Baum coordinates a variety of federal agencies to tackle drug addiction and the culture surrounding it.

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For a little over an hour on Tuesday, that group of students told him that if he wants to stem the tide of a growing opioid and drug addiction crisis by addressing youth drug use, their peers have to be at the forefront of the messaging.

Tuesday’s talk was spurred by Anne Arundel County Public Schools’ Students Against Destructive Decisions programs, itself rebranded to remove “drunk driving” in the wake of the county’s ongoing battle with drug addiction.

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Annapolis police say 23 people have been criminally indicted on drugs charges after a six-month undercover investigation.

The county has seen at least four minors overdose on opioids as of Oct. 31, according to the police department.

Lindsay Wilk, a student at South River High School, said her school hosted a number of “Not My Child” events, an initiative by county officials to inform students and parents about the dangers of drug addiction through real-life testimonials and informational lectures.

Originally, it was only open for seniors and open houses for the community outside of school hours. She said some seniors who had seen the damage opioid abuse had caused either to themselves or others approached her after seeing the event and all had a similar sentiment:

“If only you had gotten to us sooner.”

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It was a sentiment that resonated throughout the discussion as Baum looked for guidance on how to tackle the issue at the school level.

Wilk continued by saying the pressures of college and adulthood creep into the lives of many students, and drugs can be seen as a way to relieve some of that stress.

“Even (during) sophomore year, especially if you play sports because colleges start recruiting sophomore year,” she said.

For his part, Baum mostly fielded questions on the methods of treatment and the policies backing it. He said he’s seen encouraging results through medication-assisted treatment for those addicted to drugs and lauded a program in Buffalo, New York, where people charged with drug crimes are put into treatment prior to facing their charges in court.

“We have to get to that point of getting people help right away,” he said.

But he also demurred when it came to the issue of funding, which has become a hot topic on Capitol Hill as legislators debate how to best tackle the federal budget.

A teacher asked about funding to go toward drug counselors at public schools, to which Baum said about $500 million was originally allocated to two federal programs for that issue but have largely gone away.

Students with SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) sit and discuss drug use reduction with acting Director of National Drug Control Policy Richard J. Baum on Tuesday afternoon at Meade High School.
Students with SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) sit and discuss drug use reduction with acting Director of National Drug Control Policy Richard J. Baum on Tuesday afternoon at Meade High School. (Matthew Cole / Capital Gazette)

“And there were some issues with those programs,” he said. “I’d love to see a restoration of those funds, and I’m hopeful as part of the response to the opioid epidemic there might be more funding down the pike.”

“But I don’t want to over-promise because … the issue of funding is complicated,” he said, adding his office “makes sure we use the resources we have.”

When asked about a Democratic bill that would allocate $45 billion over 10 years to combat opioid addiction, he said he didn’t want to comment and that the Trump administration is working with members of Congress about coming up with the appropriate level of funding. President Donald Trump declared the opioid addiction problem a national public health emergency — to which Baum said many in his office were proud of — but did not specify what he saw as an appropriate amount of funding, asking Congress to come up with a proposal.

On the school’s side, there were a number of creative ideas as to how to connect with students about the topic. A online game that quizzed people about drug addiction and alcohol abuse that can be played through your mobile phone caught the attention of students and faculty members alike, and Baum took one of the “stress stars,” a stress ball shaped like a star, to take home with him.

Fran Philips, acting director of the county’s Department of Health, said more than one out of every 10 students in the county has used a prescription drug for improper, nonmedical use.

After the chat — one in which newly minted members of SADD took notes as Baum leaned forward to listen to students’ testimonials — it was clear that whether it was stress from school, home or their peers, there are a number of factors that can drive a student to try an opioid painkiller or other drug.

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