Drug abuse and addiction is an issue that local communities should address — and pay for — themselves, Republican U.S. Senate nominee Rand Paul said this week.
Paul's Libertarian-leaning position on drug interdiction was quickly rejected as unrealistic by some officials on the front line of the fight against drugs in Eastern Kentucky.
The drug problem in the region is severe, and cities and counties that are already hard-pressed to pay for other services could not afford additional costs to fight drugs and treat addicts, officials said.
"It is a problem that is so big that we don't have the resources to deal with it locally," said Magoffin County Judge-Executive Charles Hardin.
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The issue came up in a question about Operation UNITE, which stands for Unlawful Narcotics Investigation, Treatment and Education. The federally-funded task force does drug investigations and pays for treatment for addicts and education programs in 29 Eastern and Southern Kentucky counties.
After Paul spoke in Louisville Thursday at a meeting of local officials about the pressing need to cut federal spending, Hardin asked Paul if he supported UNITE.
Paul did not answer the question directly, but he did say "I think issues like drug use and abuse are best dealt with at the local level."
If elected, Paul said he would vote to keep Kentuckians' tax dollars at home to deal with issues instead of sending the money to Washington, D.C.
When tax money flows to the nation's capitol, half stays there, half is wasted and half of it goes to political cronyism, Paul said.
"And so I think I would rather see drug abuse and dependency treated and paid for at the local level," he said.
On Friday, Paul's campaign manager, Jesse Benton, said that as a physician and father, Paul is deeply concerned about drug abuse.
"As he does with many issues, he favors local solutions over federal control and would prefer to cut taxes and federal spending so we can have more money in Kentucky to fund important programs like Project UNITE without first sending that money through the leaky bucket of the Washington bureaucracy," Benton said.
Kentucky gets back between $1.51 and $1.82 in federal spending, depending on which study is consulted, for every dollar it sends to Washington in federal taxes. Other states — mostly in the Northeast and Midwest — subsidize Kentucky by paying more in taxes than they get in return.
After Paul's appearance in Louisville, Hardin said it's not clear that the Bowling Green eye surgeon understands the region's drug problem.
There are some issues so big that the federal government has to be involved, Hardin said.
Karen Engle, director of Operation UNITE, said Paul's position is unrealistic.
"Where's the Knott County Fiscal Court going to get money to send people to treatment?" Engle said. "It's an expensive problem."
The magnitude of the drug problem in Eastern Kentucky dwarfs the capabilities of many small city police departments and county sheriff's offices, Engle said.
Local officials reported there were 114 overdose deaths in 21 counties in January and February of this year, an indication of how widespread drug abuse is, Engle said.
"The problem is overwhelming, and the locals are not equipped to deal with it," she said.
Clay County Sheriff Kevin Johnson, who has seven officers to patrol 500 square miles, said it would be impossible to carry out some drug investigations without federal help.
Last year, for example, his officers took part in a drug investigation that required $12,000 for undercover pill purchases — money his department didn't have.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration provided the money, Johnson said.
"There's certain things I cannot financially do," he said. "Should the federal government step in and help? In my opinion, yes."
Paul's Democratic opponent, Attorney General Jack Conway, issued a news release Friday saying that Paul's answer Thursday about UNITE shows he is out of touch with the needs of Kentuckians.
UNITE is just one of the programs that would suffer from Paul's ideas, the Conway campaign said.
"We simply cannot afford his outside-the-mainstream ideas, like doing away with federal money for vital projects and programs like Operation UNITE," Allison Haley, Conway's spokeswoman, said in the release.
Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers started the task force in 2003 to deal with the debilitating drug problem in his district, one of the poorest in the nation.
Since then, UNITE officers have arrested more than 3,200 people, and the program has paid for drug treatment for more than 1,800 people, Engle said.
More than 52,000 young people have taken part in UNITE programs, which also provide money for drug counselors in 12 schools.
In a statement issued by his spokeswoman Friday, Rogers said he formed UNITE because an epidemic of drug abuse was overwhelming communities.
"Both the local and state authorities lacked the resources and manpower necessary to address this problem and communities were literally crying out for help," Rogers said. "I went to work to find solutions, and the federal government is a vital component to ensuring Operation UNITE's success."
The program has involved thousands of volunteers in helping tackle the drug epidemic, Rogers said.
The People Encouraging People Coalition in Lee County has used funding from UNITE for youth programs such as fishing and archery, aimed at giving them an alternative to drug abuse.
Federal funding from UNITE and other agencies has helped make inroads against drugs, said Chuck Caudill, program director at the coalition.
"I absolutely believe it makes a difference," he said of UNITE.
Last year, UNITE got $6.7 million from two federal agencies and $2 million from a severance tax on coal mined in Eastern Kentucky, Engle said.
Rogers earmarked the federal money for the program.
Paul has said he believes congressional earmarks should be banned and has pledged to not use them if elected.
However, Paul could still seek money for Kentucky programs and projects through the regular budget process instead of special earmarks, he said.