The Opioid Epidemic Is The New Political Hot-Button Issue

By Zachary Siegel 06/30/16

Politicians have taken on the opioid epidemic to get elected but can the politicization of the crisis bring about a much-needed resolution?

The Opioid Epidemic Is The New Political Hot-Button Issue

Over the last few years, the misuse of opioids, including heroin, has gained bipartisan political consensus. That is, to move away from crime and punishment and toward treatment and prevention. But lawmakers up for reelection are politicizing the issue, tugging on the heartstrings of voters over matters of life and death. 

A recent report by Washington Post political correspondent Katie Zezima outlines how politicians are seizing the issue in an overtly political way. In Ohio, for instance, a state with a particularly high death toll, Zezima explains how the opioid epidemic “has sparked a political fight.” 

“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,” she wrote. “But here in Ohio’s hotly contested race, politics have sneaked in.” In the Buckeye State, Republican Sen. Rob Portman and his opponent, Democratic former Gov. Ted Strickland, are duking it out over who has the better plan to tackle the epidemic. 

Gov. Strickland has Portman’s public health record in his crosshairs. Last year, Sen. Portman lobbied to fund a $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill but then voted against it in the Senate, Strickland pointed out. 

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

Yet back and forth they go, on an issue many agree needn’t be in the political sphere given that it’s a matter of public health affecting a wide range of demographics. Both sides agree something needs to be done, and now they’re fighting over who can do it better. 

Zezima spotlights another tight Senate race, this one in New Hampshire, where the opiate crisis became a popular issue during the presidential primaries. Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan are trying to demonstrate who has the best tactics for curbing a startling mortality rate. 

Hassan cited the opioid epidemic as a reason why she pushed for Medicaid expansion. A conservative super PAC that calls itself One Nation then released attack ads hitting Hassan’s record on drugs. Ayotte soon took to Twitter, calling for the group to take down the ad. 

The politicization of opioids goes even deeper than Senate races. A newly founded non-profit that calls itself Advocates for Opioid Recovery enlisted three political heavyweights as their leadership: Republican Newt Gingrich, and Democrats Patrick Kennedy and Van Jones. The bipartisan trio co-authored a recent piece for Time with the headline, “Treat America’s Opioid Epidemic With Medication.” 

“The urgency of the opioid crisis demands that we act immediately to remove the barriers to recovery medication, and give people living with addiction the treatment they need to survive and ultimately thrive in long-term recovery,” they write. 

Advocates have long been clamoring for new policies that protect instead of punish. In the current political climate, Democrats and Republicans are trying outdo one another on who can best deliver the appropriate change.  

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.