The heroin epidemic was once mostly immune from politics. Not anymore.

June 27
The Buckeye State has one of the nation’s highest rates of drug overdose deaths — and a Senate race that has sparked a political fight over its opioid crisis.

Republican Sen. Rob Portman is crisscrossing the state, touting a bill he co-authored that attempts to blunt the epidemic by promoting drug treatment and recovery. His opponent, former Democratic governor Ted Strickland, claims Portman isn’t backing up his proposals with the funding they need. The men are accusing each other of exploiting for political gain a public health crisis that killed more than 2,500 people in Ohio in 2014.

In recent years, opioid abuse has been an issue of rare bipartisan consensus and, until recently, has been mostly free of political infighting. Republicans and Democrats nationwide have banded together to try to fight opioid abuse by moving away from punitive measures and toward treatment and prevention. Portman’s bill, which was co-sponsored by members of both parties, passed the Senate 94 to 1 and has moved into conference with the House. It would authorize $725 million in grants but doesn’t offer funding; Congress must approve any allocations.

In Ohio and other states hit hard by the opioid epidemic, lawmakers up for reelection are eager to show that they are working to combat the problem. Portman’s bill garnered the support of GOP Sens. Mark Kirk (Ill.), Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and others who are in close races in states that have been ravaged by opioid abuse.

The rate of heroin overdose death more than quadrupled nationwide from 2002 to 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and more than 165,000 people died by overdosing on prescription pain medication from 1999 to 2014.

Many congressional campaigns are trying to walk a fine line: touting efforts to fight the epidemic while attempting not to politicize an issue of life and death. But here in Ohio’s hotly contested race, politics have sneaked in.

Strickland focuses part of his attack on Portman’s approach to the issue last year: The senator lobbied to put tens of millions of dollars to fight drugs into a $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill — then voted against the bill.

“I think he’s being a hypocrite because he’s not acknowledging, as he talks about this great need, that he actually voted against needed resources for these communities to provide prevention and treatment services,” Strickland said of Portman in an interview.

“Sen. Portman has traveled the state talking about his concerns and he’s doing it, I think, in a very overtly political way,” Strickland said.

Portman argues that it’s Strickland who is politicizing drugs in a state with a fatal overdose crisis. The senator said he has never supported an omnibus bill because he believes they are opaque and not good governance. Portman also points to his vote for an amendment to his anti-opioid bill that passed the Senate that would have provided $600 million in emergency funds to fight opioid abuse, a measure the Senate rejected.

“To make it political, I think, is a mistake on his part, because he’s had a lousy record on the same area,” Portman said of Strickland. “I don’t know why he’d want to get into that back-and-forth.”

Portman, who co-founded the Coalition for a Drug-Free Greater Cincinnati in 1996 and sponsored bills aiming to combat drug use in the 1990s when he was in the House, said fighting drug abuse has been one of the greatest causes of his political career. He emotionally recounted speaking with parents and family members of people who died from overdoses, and said he still has a bracelet given to him more than 20 years ago by a mother whose son overdosed and who asked Portman for help. Portman said heroin, prescription drugs and Fentanyl — a powerful synthetic opioid that is often cut into heroin — come up consistently in talks with constituents.

“This issue is something I have done representing the people of Ohio for my whole career, and it’s important to talk about it,” he said.

Portman’s campaign has touted his record on combating drug abuse in a series of four ads released over the past few weeks. One minute-long spot opens with a young woman named Holly singing the national anthem and cuts to her mother speaking about how Holly died of a drug overdose.

“We lose 129 kids a day to heroin,” Holly’s mother, Tonda DaRe, says with a pained voice, “and the only person I’ve seen standing up there screaming almost daily is Senator Portman.”

None of the ads mention Strickland. Portman has spoken on the Senate floor each week about opioid abuse since his bill passed in March. Earlier this month, he took to the floor on the birthday of the musical artist Prince, whose death in May was caused by a drug overdose. Portman ticked off instances of overdose deaths in Ohio this month, including a man found dead in a creek and a 14-month-old who ingested heroin that belonged to his father.

Strickland is also showcasing his record, saying he allocated “thousands of dollars” to drug treatment programs while governor, even though it was “during the greatest recession since the Great Depression.” Strickland said he created a statewide prescription-drug task force to try to fight the overprescribing of addictive painkillers.

According to the Akron Beacon-Journal, both men have called for cuts in drug treatment programs in the past. Facing a $7 billion deficit as governor in 2009, Strickland slashed funding for drug and alcohol programs by 28 percent. Portman sketched out a 3.6 percent reduction in drug treatment programs at two federal agencies as director of the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush.

Portman’s campaign said that, adjusted for inflation, Bush’s 2008 budget requested the same amount President Obama did in his 2017 budget. Strickland’s campaign said that during his time as governor, he increased funding for the Ohio Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services by 4 percent.

In New Hampshire, where at least 420 people died of drug overdoses last year, the opioid epidemic became an issue this year for presidential candidates in the state who spoke openly about how addiction affected their families. Heroin also has taken center stage in the Senate race between Ayotte and Gov. Maggie Hassan (D).

Ayotte co-sponsored Portman’s bill and has said combating drug abuse is one of her top legislative priorities. She introduced a bill that would allow first responders and family members to administer Naloxone, a drug that can reverse a heroin overdose.

One Nation, a conservative group, released an ad this month hitting Hassan’s record on heroin and citing the resignation of Hassan’s drug czar, who came under fire for an alleged lack of outreach. It ran for 10 days. Ayotte said on Twitter that the group should take down the ad.

Here in Columbus, Marcie Seidel, executive director of Drug Free Action Alliance, said she doesn’t like seeing drugs become a hot-button political issue.

“It really doesn’t need to be in the political realm, and we’re very much against it being in the political realm,” Seidel said. “This is a public policy piece that cuts across demographics, and everyone should be marching together.”