In communities across Alaska and beyond, our country is facing a monumental but preventable challenge: the crisis of drug addiction. From 1999 to 2017, the number of Alaskans who died from a drug overdose increased by 219 percent. Although many of these deaths happened in larger cities like Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, the addiction crisis is crippling small towns, Native villages and remote places throughout Alaska, leaving no community or geography out of its reach.
I saw this firsthand in a recent visit to the state to discuss the importance of telecommunications infrastructure in combating addiction. Particularly for a remote place like Alaska, telecommunications infrastructure is critical to saving lives by increasing access to health care resources, quality of life and economic opportunity. Working with partners like the Alaska Telecommunications Association, we must continue to expand high-speed internet coverage in more rural communities.
Further, once connected, we must ensure that there is the capacity in small towns and Native villages to use technology to defeat this crisis. While in Anchorage, I met with leaders from the Southcentral Foundation, who are using teleservices to support behavioral health aides in remote villages. Connectivity can help build an addiction workforce, enable distance learning around prevention, share data for greater enforcement and provide access to recovery services. Telecommunications infrastructure is key to health and hope in rural America.
These efforts complement the work of other Native leaders I met with in Alaska. People like Gerda, the tribal administrator for Port Heiden who is helping struggling grandparents in her community raise grandchildren in place of an addicted son or daughter, and Anna, a Valdez tribal manager who has walked the long road to sobriety from prescription pain pills with her veteran son. Sadly, I also met Alaskans like John, who have lost loved ones to the disease of addiction. After losing his daughter Kellsie, John is now harnessing his grief to support other parents through the Mat-Su Opioid Task Force.
Under the leadership of President Trump, this administration understands that the need for partnership in our efforts against rural drug addiction could not be greater. To help support rural leaders in Alaska and beyond, the Trump administration is matching the magnitude of this crisis with a historic level of focus and resources to support state and local leaders in making real change.
For example, last fall, we designated 25 of Alaska’s boroughs as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA). This was the first designation of a new HIDTA made by any administration since 2001, finally ensuring that law enforcement efforts across all 50 states are connected via the HIDTA program. This will enable Alaska to access new funding for enforcement, prosecution and intelligence efforts for drug control across the state. In addition, the administration is helping community leaders prevent addiction from grasping the lives of Alaska children with grant funding under the Drug Free Communities Program. In 2018, the administration awarded funds to community coalitions in Palmer, Sitka and Ketchikan.
For rural communities like Valdez and Port Heiden, drug addiction poses a very real threat to the future prosperity of rural America. However, this challenge also creates an opportunity for federal, state, tribal and local leaders to set a new vision and build strong, healthy and resilient places for the future. Working together as partners, we can ensure that Alaska is a place with quality of life and economic opportunity now and for the next generation.
Anne Hazlett is a Senior Advisor for Rural Affairs at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), where she is working across the federal government to equip rural leaders with tools to address drug addiction in rural America. Before joining the team at ONDCP, Anne served as the Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development at the United States Department of Agriculture.
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