How Dennis Cauchon, a Former 'USA Today' Reporter, Became a Leading Voice for Needle Exchanges in Ohio

As the founder and president of Harm Reduction Ohio, Cauchon lobbies for progressive drug policies in the state—a position that can pit him not just against politicians, but also other reformers.
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Dennis Cauchon at his office in Ohio.

Dennis Cauchon at his office in Granville, Ohio. "Go to a needle exchange and meet real users," he says. "They are humans too."

Read our year-long investigation into the addiction crisis plaguing Rust Belt America.

On a warm June morning, a group of public-health professionals sit in a bland white-walled boardroom. The dozen people gathered here constitute the core members of the Licking County, Ohio, prescription drug overdose prevention coalition. They are, at the moment, plodding through a discussion of various mundanities associated with what's largely a thankless job: grant funding, educational outreach, and the difficulties of setting up a syringe exchange.

It's when discussing this last point that, amid the hushed conversation and polite head nodding, an unfamiliar voice rings out sharply. "I'm Dennis Cauchon, from Harm Reduction Ohio," he says. "The time for a needle exchange is here."

Cauchon continues: From a public-health perspective, a syringe services program is a no-brainer. They help reduce needlestick injuries and the spread of infectious diseases. They save taxpayers money. Exchanges are also a place to build relationships with users, to open a door to treatment.

Cauchon, a former USA Today reporter and editor who even in his 50s sports a full head of (now gray) rumpled hair, has joined this coalition meeting for the first time, and he's prepared. As the founder and president of Harm Reduction Ohio, a policy-oriented non-profit, he knows the research: Syringe service programs reduce not only drug use, but also the likelihood that users will contract Hepatitis C or HIV. It's that last point that's especially interesting to the Licking County coalition, as there are nearly 90,000 people in Ohio living with Hepatitis C. Cauchon notes that syringe services programs, once frowned upon in many parts of the country, are becoming commonplace.

The room seems divided. Some people support Cauchon's ideas. They think these programs will help address a mounting health crisis. (Apparently many state officials do too: There are currently 19 programs open in the state.) Others are concerned that exchanges will only enable users.

Cauchon concedes that converting the public will be a challenge. But he's not daunted by the task. It's not in his nature to be. He's got, after all, the tenacity—and the knowhow—of a seasoned journalist.

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At USA Today, Cauchon earned a reputation as a bit of a muckraker. After stints at the Sun-Herald (the paper of Biloxi, Mississippi) and the Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Mississippi), he became a financial reporter for USA Today in Arlington, Virginia. Over time he went on to cover national affairs, eventually trying his hand at editing. Cauchon reported and edited stories on wars, hurricanes, economics, entrepreneurship, politics, and health care. The stories kept coming, for nearly 26 years.

But an impressive portfolio can't compensate for a failing business, and when USA Today announced in 2013 that it was downsizing again, Cauchon took a buyout. Explaining the decision now, five years later, Cauchon doesn't mince his words: "As time went on I would have been squeezed out," he says.

A month later, Cauchon landed back on his feet, this time writing corporate copy in the tiny college town of Granville, Ohio. Life in Granville was picturesque: The downtown looks like a Norman Rockwell painting, littered with shops and restaurants that attract tourists and students of nearby Denison University. To feed his hunger for justice-oriented reporting, he created a series of blogs devoted to the issues he cared about: marijuana reform, pedestrian safety, mass incarceration.

"I would come to my office and tell myself, 'I'm going to spend five hours doing corporate writing and then I can blog," he says. But what was supposed to be a pet project quickly became the focal point of his day, and that time ratio was soon flipped on its head.

There was a recurring theme in his reporting: an uptick in overdoses in the state, and a reluctance by many authorities to understand that rise. In November of 2016 he started Harm Reduction Ohio, first as a blog and then as a non-profit organization. His reasoning was simple: "I saw ... the level of death that was happening all around me."

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Even now, his office looks like a journalist's. In a narrow hallway above a local coffee shop, Cauchon works at a cramped and chaotic desk, shoved in the corner of the room. He is surrounded by half-opened file cabinet drawers, empty coffee cups, and a dirty window that looks out onto a busy highway.

Cauchon's current job requires a remarkable dexterity: He is, at any one point, lobbying a local politician to support harm reduction policies, pestering state crime labs for access to drug seizure data, and working on his latest opinion piece for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The results have been encouraging. His pugnacity helped him discover that the Ohio Department of Health had failed to submit a form to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that would give the state access to $7.6 million to support syringe exchanges. And it was his pugnacity that helped push that same department to issue a warning to county officials about an uptick in overdose deaths from fentanyl-laced cocaine.

"My values haven't changed," he says. "I'm kind of an activist but I still call the other side to ask their point of view. My forum has changed."

Now Cauchon is hoping the county he lives in will support a syringe exchange program—and perhaps provide space for one. State law requires that the county board of health must approve the exchange, but that there must be a committed location for the exchange before it can be approve.

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In late August, Cauchon walks up to a microphone at an overdose awareness day rally in downtown Newark, Ohio. There's a good sized crowd for a hot and sticky afternoon. The summer has passed, and there's still no syringe exchange in Licking County.

He begins awkwardly, hands shoved into his pockets. "We hear a lot from people about the crisis, but not enough from the addicts themselves," Cauchon says. He explains that, if anything is going to change, we need to start listening to users. He talks about the disability rights movement and the slogan "nothing about us without us."

There's some feedback from the mic, but the audience is hushed. This is, after all, the Midwest; people are nothing here if not well-mannered.

Cauchon picks up speed, his voice steadying as he begins describing the users whose lives are being claimed: These are people, he says. People with families. People with homes and lives and jobs.

"Go to a needle exchange and meet real users; they are humans too," he says.

The audience is behind him now, heads are nodding up and down, they're clapping. The reporter has become the activist, and the shift seems to suit him just fine.

Read our year-long investigation into the addiction crisis plaguing Rust Belt America.

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