Ohio candidate calls for more heroin treatment

ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS AP Legal Affairs Writer Published:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- The state needs to treat the problem of heroin abuse as a public health crisis by ramping up prevention and treatment efforts and toughening penalties for dealers, including homicide charges if an overdose results in death, the Democratic candidate for Ohio attorney general said Tuesday.

Money from Ohio's expanded Medicaid funding should be directed to addiction treatment, David Pepper said, adding the state should also return local government dollars to communities dealing with the crisis.

He called the current crisis, which includes record numbers of heroin overdose deaths, "one of the most predictable crises you've ever seen." He said Ohio authorities should have known a recent crackdown on illegal painkiller clinics would drive addicts to heroin.

"Ohio has played this game of whack-a-mole, where we went after it in one place with the criminal sanction, we didn't provide the underlying treatment, and now we have a crisis frankly that's arguably even bigger, with heroin which is cheaper and more dangerous," Pepper said.

Among other proposals, Pepper would:

--Create a multiagency task force including public health officials, community leaders and police to develop an anti-heroin strategy.

--Push the use of proven prevention programs, provide more money for treatment and sue drugmakers who Pepper says marketed powerful drugs such as painkillers without fully disclosing the risks.

--Crack down on suppliers and dealers, including tougher sentences for the worst dealers and homicide charges against dealers whose drugs result in overdose deaths.

Pepper appeared at a news conference with Adams County Commissioner Paul Worley and Bellefontaine Mayor Adam Brannon, both of whom said their communities have been ravaged by heroin.

Pepper said the state and in particular Attorney General Mike DeWine have responded slowly to the epidemic of heroin abuse.

DeWine has called the heroin problem an epidemic with as many as 11 Ohioans dying of overdoses a week. He's created a special police unit to beef up investigations of heroin rings and has held town halls across Ohio to alert communities to the problem. Suburban communities are often reluctant to acknowledge the problem, DeWine said.

He said he welcomes Pepper's ideas.

"We've never seen anything like it. It's unprecedented," DeWine said Tuesday, referring to the growing heroin abuse problem. "We've never had as lethal a drug as available, and as cheap."

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Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus.