Holcomb appoints drug czar to combat abuse epidemic

Gov. Eric Holcomb speaks Thursday, alongside Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, about his plan to create a state drug czar charged with leading Indiana's efforts to combat drug abuse.

INDIANAPOLIS — Gov. Eric Holcomb did not wait long to follow through on his campaign promise to vigorously combat Indiana's drug abuse epidemic.

The Republican signed an executive order mere hours after his inauguration Monday creating the position of executive director for drug prevention, treatment and enforcement. The order charges that person with coordinating all state and private-sector efforts to reduce drug use in Indiana.

"Since 1999, Indiana has seen a 500 percent increase in drug overdose deaths. This is an epidemic tragically affecting Hoosiers from every walk of life in every part of our state," Holcomb said. 

"This new position will provide the urgent and concerted attention required to effectively reduce the impact drug addiction is having on families, individuals and children."

The governor appointed Jim McClelland, the retired CEO of Goodwill Industries of Central Indiana, to the post.

As a sign of McClelland's importance, he was given a Statehouse office just steps away from Holcomb's office suite.

McClelland will serve as the governor's representative and chairman of the recently established Indiana Commission to Combat Drug Abuse, which is tasked with keeping tabs on substance abuse across Indiana and promoting treatment and prevention programs.

In addition, McClelland is authorized to interact, engage and coordinate with any state employee or agency, as needed, to respond to the drug epidemic.

"This dangerous and destructive trend of drug abuse in our state requires urgent and concerted action by all elements of Indiana state government in order to promptly and effectively reduce the terrible impact this epidemic is having on Indiana's citizens," Holcomb said.

Besides the significant rise in drug overdose deaths, the prevalence of drug abuse in Indiana has resulted in the spread of Hepatitis C and HIV infections tied to the shared use of dirty needles for injecting heroin and other opioid drugs.

Indiana also saw the most pharmacy robberies of any state in both 2015 and 2016 as drug users resorted to crime to get their fix, or bypass the state's increasingly strict opioid prescribing laws.

Holcomb this year is asking the Republican-controlled General Assembly to enhance the criminal penalties for robbery when a perpetrator targets a pharmacy.

At the same time, he wants lawmakers to make it easier for counties to set up needle exchange programs to reduce infectious disease tied to drug abuse.

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Dan is Statehouse Bureau Chief for The Times. Since 2009, he's reported on Indiana government and politics — and how both impact the Region — from the state capital in Indianapolis. He originally is from Orland Park, Ill.