AP: Politicians fight over approach to heroin crisis

Andrew Welsh-Huggins 7:04 a.m. EDT October 9, 2014

COLUMBUS – Heroin has become the drug of choice for many addicts in Ohio — and the politicians squabbling over who has done the most to tackle the epidemic of overdose deaths blamed on it.

In the race for attorney general, Democratic challenger David Pepper has accused GOP incumbent Mike DeWine of a slow response to the heroin problem since taking office in 2011.

“For three years, Mike DeWine failed to notice Ohio’s exploding heroin crisis, and he has since offered a lot of talk with few solutions,” Pepper said earlier this year in a typical attack.

A record 680 Ohioans died of heroin-related overdoses in 2012, according to the most recent state Health Department records.

Pepper has proposed a mix of education, treatment and prevention. He said he would also sue drugmakers he accused of marketing powerful drugs such as painkillers without fully disclosing the risks.

Pepper and DeWine both favor tougher sentences for the worst dealers and homicide charges against dealers whose drugs result in overdose deaths.

The latest disagreement came last week, when DeWine announced the formation of a committee to study making death certificates standard across the state to improve the accuracy of drug overdose data. Pepper said he proposed a similar effort almost a year ago with a plan to create real-time crime tracking. DeWine’s office said the proposals are “apples and oranges.”

In Maryland, Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Hogan has criticized Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, saying Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration hasn’t done enough to address that state’s heroin problem. Both candidates for Wisconsin attorney general, without assigning blame, have said more needs to be done about the problem.

In Ohio governor’s race, Democrat Ed FitzGerald has criticized Republican incumbent John Kasich for cutting funds to local governments, straining the resources of police and prosecutors as the heroin crisis worsens. The Fraternal Order of Police has endorsed both FitzGerald and Pepper, citing in part their aggressive proposals for combatting heroin and concerns over the local government cuts.

When DeWine and Kasich took office in January 2011, heroin was a distant second to prescription painkillers as a cause of concern. The state tackled the problem with a successful crackdown on pills-on-demand pain clinics masquerading as legitimate medical centers.

But addicts’ move to cheaper and more readily available heroin cut the celebration short and by 2013, growing numbers of heroin deaths were the headline.

DeWine’s has held numerous forums with local police, community leaders and schools where — like Pepper — he emphasizes tougher laws, education, prevention and treatment. He announced the creation of a special heroin unit on Nov. 8.

“We’re not going to arrest our way out of this problem,” DeWine said at a heroin summit at a suburban Columbus high school earlier this year that was also attended by Kasich.

FitzGerald called Kasich’s attendance “hypocritical” given cuts to local government funding. Ohio Democrats have labeled such summits and forums “pep talks.”

Among other initiatives, the Kasich administration cites an anti-drug addiction program for school children and a new law allowing friends or family members of addicts to administer the drug overdose antidote, naloxone, marketed as Narcan, without fear of prosecution.

For information on local issues and candidates, visit the Times Recorder’s voter guide at ZanesvilleTimesRecorder.com/voterguide.