03/22/2011 08:41 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How Reducing Drug Use and Its Consequences Can Help America Win the Future

Stories about the toll of drug use are often tales of individual suffering; of a career lost, a young life derailed, or a tragic death. Recently, during a visit through West Virginia, Kentucky, Georgia and Florida to discuss the prescription drug abuse epidemic, I heard other kinds of stories that were just as troubling.

Several business leaders recounted to me their experiences in trying to hire workers in economically depressed areas of Appalachia. Some indicated that they had trouble finding enough qualified, ready-to-work employees that could pass a drug test. Others said they had to give up their plans to expand their businesses for the same reason. As a result, potential jobs were lost, in a region where they are sorely needed.

During his State of the Union Address in February 2011, President Obama announced to the Nation that we are in the midst of our generation's "Sputnik moment" and that, "to win the future, we'll need to take on the challenges that have been decades in the making." All of us are part of this effort. And simply put, our Nation cannot reach its full potential without a drug-free and healthy citizenry.

Drug use and its consequences affect every sector of society that is vital to a strong America. They strain our economy, our healthcare and criminal justice systems, and endanger the futures of our young people. Our drug problem impairs our ability to out-compete and out-innovate the rest of the world. Addressing the health and crime consequences of drug use costs our society over $180 billion in resources each year. This includes significant loss of potential productivity from disability, premature death, and withdrawal of people from our workforce.

Drug use also hampers our ability to out-educate our global competitors. Research shows that youth in school who are current marijuana users are less likely to have an average grade of "A" than those who are not current marijuana users. Additionally, college students who use prescription stimulant medications nonmedically typically have lower grade point averages, are more likely to be heavy drinkers and users of other illicit drugs, more likely to meet diagnostic criteria for dependence on alcohol and marijuana, to skip class more frequently, and to spend less time studying.

The good news is that the Obama Administration's collaborative, balanced, and science based approach to drug policy will help our Nation meet these challenges. We are emphasizing community-based drug prevention, integrating evidence-based interventions and treatment into the healthcare system, promoting innovations in the criminal justice system that decrease recidivism, and forging and maintaining strong international partnerships to disrupt drug trafficking organizations. And because drug use affects different communities in very different ways, we've made an unprecedented effort to effect change at the local level.

But we need your help. Our roadmap to reduce drug use and its consequences involves a partnership between the Federal Government, and you. Meeting President Obama's goal of reducing drug use and its consequences by 15 percent over the next five years will require teamwork and collaboration.

If you're a parent of a teenager, take time today to talk to them about the harms of illegal drugs. Research shows us that you're the most powerful messenger to deliver that message. If you're a community leader, join a local drug-free coalition, or start your own to help empower young people to reject negative influences in their lives.

Involved in the health care system? Learn about how the Affordable Care Act is making it easier to integrate drug treatment into our mainstream health care system. Judges, prosecutor and defense attorneys can support alternatives to incarceration by learning more about drug courts and innovative probation and drug market programs, and by supporting the work that they do.

The race to secure the future for our Nation's children is real. Our children, and their children, will only be equipped to compete with their peers around the globe if the U.S. has a sound economy fueled by an educated, prepared and healthy, drug-free workforce. By reducing drug use and its consequences, teaching children the value of healthy and responsible life choices, and promoting education, innovation, and excellence, we can ensure that the future is ours to win.