News about the expansion of a federal anti-drug program in Kentucky on Monday provided U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell an opportunity to tout his record on an issue that has taken on a higher profile recently in his race against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes.
The administration of President Barack Obama on Monday added two more counties to the Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, which provides money for drug investigations.
McConnell's news release — which came out minutes before the official announcement from the White House — quoted HIDTA chief Frank Rapier saying Madison and Nelson counties would not have been added without McConnell's efforts.
"Senator McConnell has consistently championed the efforts of drug enforcement in Kentucky in their efforts to fight the ravages of drugs in our communities," Rapier said.
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Grimes had also called for expanding the HIDTA program.
Substance abuse has been a crippling problem in Kentucky, and both candidates hope to gain traction on the issue.
Grimes has criticized McConnell for declining to express support for a state GOP proposal aimed at cracking down on heroin trafficking, which is a burgeoning problem in Kentucky, while McConnell said it would be a mistake to consider legalizing marijuana after Grimes said she would be open to discussing such a move — a position her campaign parsed carefully on Monday.
Grimes' comments about marijuana came during an interview with sports radio personality Matt Jones last Thursday. Grimes said medical marijuana would deserve special attention in that discussion, but also went beyond that, saying McConnell had not recognized the economic benefits Colorado has seen from legalizing recreational marijuana use.
Asked in an email Monday whether Grimes favors a conversation "only on medical marijuana, or on recreational use, as in Colorado," the Grimes campaign said medical marijuana.
"She specifically cited as an example the recent Kentucky law clearing the way for use of cannabis oil for severe seizure disorders," said campaign spokeswoman Charly Norton.
When asked if Grimes was scaling back the position she took last week, Norton said Grimes "would be willing to listen to the experts and have a thoughtful discussion on the larger issue."
For his part, McConnell said not only does he oppose legalizing marijuana, it's a mistake to even look down that road.
"I don't think an answer to this, honestly, is to go in a direction of legalizing any of these currently illegal drugs. I mean, it just further makes it just like we're sort of going to give up," McConnell said during a radio interview last week, according to his campaign. "This whole, you know, movement in various parts of the country is a big mistake. I mean, you can argue about that if you want to, but the message that goes out when you do that is we don't really care about this."
Grimes, Kentucky's secretary of state, also released her platform last week for combating drugs, and McConnell has introduced a bill aimed at reducing the number of babies born addicted to drugs.
In her platform, Grimes advocated a three-pronged approach to drive down substance abuse, focusing on prevention, treatment and enforcement.
The plan Grimes posted on her website advocates more funding for efforts to educate kids and parents about drugs; an effort to bring a youth-violence prevention program to Kentucky's cities; more money for treatment, including for veterans through the Veterans Administration, as well as preserving funding for health centers that provide treatment; seeking to set up federal drug-diversion programs in the state; and preserving payment for treatment through the Affordable Care Act — a law McConnell vehemently opposes.
Grimes also advocated more border security and creating more jobs as ways to combat drugs.
Her plan did not identify a way to pay for the measures.
In response to questions, her campaign said that if she's elected, Grimes plans to work with both sides of the aisle to find ways to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse and to fund top priorities by cutting others, if needed.
"Combating the drug scourge is a top priority for Alison," Norton said in an email. "She has also identified areas where revenue can be gained by eliminating tax breaks that encourage companies to ship jobs overseas and only serve to benefit millionaires and billionaires."
Tommy Loving, executive director of the Kentucky Narcotics Officers Association, said Grimes' plan has worthwhile objectives.
"It's just where's the money coming from?" Loving said, noting that federal funding for many programs has been tight in recent years.
On Monday, McConnell's campaign scoffed at Grimes' drug plan
"Alison Lundergan Grimes has done less than nothing to combat Kentucky's drug problem and now, forty days before an election, she's trying to convince people she cares," said McConnell's campaign spokeswoman, Allison Moore.
Norton countered that McConnell has offered no ideas to combat drugs.
"From offering no plan to combat substance abuse, to refusing to take a position on legislation to crack down on heroin trafficking, McConnell clearly cares more about his own self-promotion than helping the people of Kentucky," Norton said.
But McConnell's campaign said the addition of more counties to the HIDTA program in Kentucky is only the latest example of many of how Kentucky's senior senator has worked to fight drugs.
Among other things, McConnell worked to get more than $46 million in funding for the National Guard and U.S. Forest Service for drug interdiction; supported a measure to ban synthetic drugs; worked against allowing powerful painkillers to come to market without technology to make it harder to abuse them; supported funding for drug courts; pushed the U.S. Postal Service to help with investigations; and advocated adding Jefferson and Hardin counties to the HIDTA earlier.
The Kentucky Narcotics Officers Association recently named McConnell its federal lawmaker of the year, citing his support for anti-drug funding and other work, Loving said.
McConnell's bill dealing with babies born addicted to drugs would direct federal officials to find and deliver information to doctors and others about maternal addiction and infant drug withdrawal, figure out if more research is needed and require an evaluation of the availability and effectiveness of programs that treat addicted mothers and babies suffering withdrawal.
The number of Kentucky newborns undergoing painful withdrawal in the hospital shot up from 29 in 2000 to more than 950 in 2013, McConnell's office said, citing a state report.