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'It's devastating', Ohio 'Drug Czar' talks overdose deaths, strategy, settlements

Exclusive one-on-one interview with News 5
Ohio's Drug Czar talks about record breaking overdose deaths, settlements, and state's strategy for battling drug problems
Posted at 6:12 PM, Nov 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-10 18:31:13-05

CLEVELAND — There have been recent opioid-related settlements between pharmacies and drug companies and local governments. It’s a lot of money that leaders are hoping will lead to even bigger changes in Ohio’s overdose deaths.

We wanted to hear more about settlements, strategy, and what the state is doing to combat overdoses, so we sat down for a one-on-one exclusive interview with the woman known as Ohio’s Drug Czar.

“What’s your initial reaction when you see those numbers?” we asked Alisha Nelson about the record-breaking drug overdoses Ohio is seeing.

“It’s just devastating,” said Nelson.


She is the Director of Recovery Ohio. When we asked the governor’s office who the state’s Drug Czar is, it pointed to Nelson.

“It just gives us the drive that we need to keep going, keep pushing, and keep our foot on the gas,” she told us.

Part of that fuel is the recent settlement money — billions of dollars across the country and big money for Ohio. Nelson said that will be new resources for several initiatives including drug prevention with children.

“Make sure that we identify when we may be struggling with a mental health concern or substance use concern,” she explained.

The money will allow more hands-on involvement with those using drugs.

“We need to continue to expand the availability of treatment and make sure that we have the workforce and that’s going to be an important component,” said Nelson.

And the money will enhance help for people to maintain their journey in recovery.

“And that’s peer support efforts, talking with the faith community, that’s making sure people can get back in school…back to work,” she told us.


One of the biggest obstacles the state faces is the explosion of fentanyl use.

“We know that 76% or more of our deaths are because of Fentanyl,” Nelson relayed to us.

To fight that, the state has helped put 60,000 Naloxone kits into Ohio communities.

“It gives us the folks who really want to see that person succeed and get to treatment and get to recovery…a chance at recovery,” said Nelson.

But what about the illegal drug dealers and suppliers?

“Are we getting the bad guys?” we asked.

“Since we’ve been in the governor’s office, we opened the Ohio Narcotics Intelligence Center,” said Nelson. That is supporting local drug task forces helping in things like gathering evidence.

“To make sure that they can use cellphones and collect data and really understand what’s happening in a case,” she said.


However, Nelson said we can’t just arrest our way out of our drug problems.

“What are we not doing right?” we inquired.

“Folks are going to experience more anxiety, more depression, and need more support,” she answered. She told us there needs to be a shift in attitude away from shaming those using drugs and gravitating to evidence-based practices like Medication-Assisted Treatment. Plus, there needs to be more understanding about the mental aspects of drug addiction.

“The more we all can embrace that this is just like any other disease…heart disease, diabetes… and that our brains are an important part of our body,” said Nelson.

She told us only 23 of the 88 counties account for 80% of Ohio’s overdoses.

Despite our current overdose rates, Nelson said there are reasons for optimism.

“I don’t want them to lose hope in this fight. And that, I believe, we will and we can overcome what we’re seeing,” said Nelson.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with drug use, you can call the state’s Care Line at 800-720-9616.