FRANKFORT — Republican U.S. Senate nominee Rand Paul said he doesn't think the drug problem in Eastern Kentucky is "a real pressing issue," even though others have described substance abuse in the region as an epidemic.
Paul's latest comment, made in late July while speaking to an Associated Press reporter, expands on his previously stated position in favor of cutting federal funding for undercover drug investigations and drug treatment programs. Many officials say both are badly needed in Appalachia, a hotbed for marijuana growers and drug dealers selling prescription pills and methamphetamines.
His Democratic opponent, Jack Conway, favors using federal money, as does the region's Republican congressman, U.S. Rep. Harold Rogers of Somerset.
"I don't think it's a real pressing issue," Paul told The Associated Press, suggesting that Eastern Kentucky voters are more concerned about fiscal and social issues. The AP first reported the quote Thursday.
"They're socially conservative out there, so am I. Jack's not. They're fiscally conservative. I am. Jack's not. ... I think we'll swamp him," Paul said.
He apparently doesn't understand the severity of the drug problem in Appalachian Kentucky, some current and former officeholders said.
Letcher County Sheriff Danny Webb estimated 95 percent of the problems police deal with — everything from domestic assaults and thefts to murder — are related to drugs.
"Drugs is definitely a pressing issue in this area," said Webb, a Democrat. "I cannot go to Wal-Mart or Food City to shop without somebody stopping me and talking about a drug dealer in their neighborhood."
As a Republican, businesswoman Carrie Cinnamond-Rose leans toward Paul, but she has seen her Pikeville pharmacy burglarized and robbed four times in recent years.
"I'll have to follow my heart but let my brain enter into it, too," Cinnamond-Rose said.
Addicts in search of a fix have forced some drugstores in Kentucky's mountain region to lock pharmacists behind bulletproof glass and painkillers inside vaults. Some employers have reported having trouble finding workers because many people have substance-abuse problems.
Local officials reported 114 overdose deaths during the first two months of this year in 21 Eastern and southern Kentucky counties, Karen Engle, head of the Operation UNITE anti-drug task force, said recently.
Rogers, who endorsed Paul after the May 18 primary, started Operation UNITE in 2003. The state puts up about $2 million, and the federal share of $4.3 million comes mostly from federal earmarks made by Rogers.
Paul has pledged not to request earmarks, and he said he isn't worried that voters would be upset about losing Operation UNITE.
"I don't think most people in Kentucky have heard of it," he told The AP.
When Paul first criticized federal spending on Operation UNITE in early July, Rogers issued a statement defending the program. "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 at the time.
There is no question people in Eastern Kentucky are concerned about fiscal and social issues, but drug abuse also is a key concern, said former Jackson County Judge-Executive Tommy Slone, a Republican.
"Apparently (Paul) just doesn't know, or he wouldn't make that statement" about drugs not being a pressing issue, Slone said. "It'll hurt him if he says that because there's a lot of people up here that's been affected by these drugs."
Paul's campaign strategy calls for him to carry rural Kentucky, including Appalachia, and stay close in Louisville and Lexington, where voters tend to favor Democrats.
Conway has been trying to use the drug issue to whittle into Paul's rural base.
"Rand will handcuff local sheriffs trying to combat the drug epidemic, and I will make sure Kentucky's law enforcement has the tools they need to protect our families," Conway said.
Paul, a Tea Party movement favorite, said he is opposed to the legalization of marijuana, even for medicinal purposes. But he also has called drug sentences of 10 to 20 years too harsh.
"I think drugs are a scourge, but at the same time, I also understand that teenagers — people that you may be related to, people that I may be related to — have had drug problems," he said last month.
A GQ magazine piece this week quotes an anonymous woman who described a marijuana-fueled prank by Paul and a friend when they were Baylor University students in the early 1980s. Paul's campaign hasn't directly denied the allegation.
Conway said Kentucky, a small state suffering from budget cuts, can't afford to take on drug traffickers without federal help. Paul wants to limit federal involvement to drugs crossing state or national borders. He has said other work to tackle the drug problem should be paid for locally, but he hasn't said how local and state governments would fund that.
Ed Schemelya, point man in the federal government's marijuana eradication program that confiscated roughly $2 billion worth of the drug in the central Appalachians last year, said cutting off federal funding would embolden drug traffickers.
"It would be impossible to stop them without federal assistance, because of the dire straits that these economies are in," Schemelya said.
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.