By Bruce Schreiner and Roger Alford
Spurred by Rand Paul's suggestion that drug abuse isn't "a real pressing issue" in the Senate race, Jack Conway spotlighted Kentucky's "epidemic" of prescription pill abuse that is costing lives and overloading the courts and prisons with addicts who turn to crime to fund their habits.
Conway, a Democrat, visited Kentucky's mountain region on Monday where he said Paul, his Republican opponent, "just doesn't get it" concerning painkillers like OxyContin and the impact they have had on Kentucky.
Paul shot back while visiting a faith-based addiction recovery center at Dixon in western Kentucky, accusing Conway of "pandering" for votes by mischaracterizing his concern for the state's drug woes.
"It's been recently insinuated somehow that I don't care about the drug problem in Kentucky, and that's absolutely wrong," Paul told reporters Monday before touring the Wingshadow Lodge of Western Kentucky Teen Challenge, a drug treatment center for men that doesn't rely on taxpayer money.
Paul, a tea party favorite who advocates a more limited federal government, said he prefers local initiatives over federally based responses to combat drug trafficking and addiction woes afflicting Kentucky.
Meanwhile, Conway took part in a round-table discussion with local prosecutors and residents who pleaded for help to combat what they called a drug epidemic.
"Morgan County used to be kind of like Mayberry," said prosecutor Steve O'Connor. "We'd have a murder once in a while. We probably have four or five unsolved murders now that were all drug-related. In a small county like Morgan County, it's a huge problem."
Paul has said he would cut federal funding for undercover drug investigations and drug treatment programs in Appalachia, a hotbed for marijuana growers and drug dealers selling prescription pills and methamphetamines. He told The Associated Press recently that he doesn't think drug abuse is "a real pressing issue" in the Senate race, suggesting that voters are more concerned about fiscal and social concerns.
Conway has sought to capitalize on the statement to win support among rural voters.
"I've been listening all summer to Rand Paul make silly statements and waffle back, and I haven't been so harsh on him," Conway said Monday. "I'm going to be harsh on him when it comes to saying drugs in Kentucky is not a real pressing issue."
Conway and Paul are seeking to replace retiring Sen. Jim Bunning, who opted not to seek a third term.
Paul shows libertarian leanings on drugs. He has called drug sentences of 10 to 20 years too harsh. While he has said he opposes the legalization of marijuana, even for medicinal purposes, his campaign said Monday he believes it should be up to individual states to decide the issue.
Conway said Kentucky can't afford to take on drug traffickers without federal help.
Conway said Monday's discussion in Campton wasn't political grandstanding, telling reporters afterward that he has worked hard to fulfill his promise as attorney general to fight the drug problem. Shortly after Conway became state attorney general in 2008, he created a task force to coordinate local, state and federal efforts to curb prescription pill trafficking. Last year, that task force was part of the largest prescription pill bust in Kentucky history, charging more than 500 people in a drug pipeline between Florida and Kentucky.
Conway also supports Operation UNITE, a federal initiative providing undercover narcotics investigations and addiction treatment. The state puts up about $2 million, and the federal share of $4.3 million comes mostly from federal earmarks.
Paul reiterated Monday that he would not request earmarks, but said he would still push for funding priorities for Kentucky "in the context of a balanced budget and within the context of a committee process."
He said that stance would apply to funding for Operation UNITE as well.
"You should have the debate within the committee process, but my general preference though would be for local solutions funded locally over federal solutions," Paul said when asked about federal funding for Operation UNITE.
People at Conway's round-table praised Operation UNITE for arresting drug traffickers and providing treatment for addicts.
Conway said "there's not a single family in this part of the state, and I would venture to say a single family in Kentucky for the most part" that hasn't been affected by "the scourge of prescription pills." He said his own family has been affected, though he declined to give details.
Ashland resident Mike Donta, whose son committed suicide in July after a long bout with addiction to painkillers, said Kentucky needs more drug treatment facilities.
"To minimize the drug problem we've got in eastern Kentucky is a slap in the face to every one of us," Donta said. "It's an insult to people like me and the hundreds of others who have put their kid in the ground."
Paul praised the Teen Challenge program, which boasts a very high success rate among participants nationally who are able to hold down jobs and avoid relapsing after leaving the program. Paul said he liked the faith-based aspect of the program, which does not use federal money and gets most of its funding from donations and fundraising.
Prosecutor Todd P'Pool praised the high success rate amid law enforcement's ongoing battle against drugs.
"I have to say, catching and convicting drug addicts is as easy as walking around the block," he said. "That's not hard to do. There's plenty of business out there. The tougher part is what we do once we get a conviction. The solution is how do we get them off of drugs."