On a recent night, Ryan Hampton stood before a crowd in Spokane, Washington, and urged them to make drugs and addiction a central issue in the midterm elections. “We’re seeing these overdose numbers reach new historic highs,” Hampton said, referring to the 107,622 Americans who died after using illegal drugs last year. Hampton is an activist who himself was addicted to opioids for years and survived repeated overdoses.

But in an interview with NPR, he expressed concern that the drug policy debate has been tilted in a dangerous new direction, with increasingly partisan attack ads focusing on the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl. Many Republicans talk about opioids not as a public health problem, but as a symptom of what they describe as a crime and border crisis.

Drug deaths have increased in recent years, and public health experts say those fatal overdoses have fueled the rapid spread of fentanyl and the social disruption caused by the COVID pandemic. But in the late summer and fall, Republicans began hitting Democrats hard on the drug problem in tight campaigns, linking fentanyl-related deaths to rising crime and fears about border security. Republican Mehmet Oz attacked Democrat John Fetterman in the Pennsylvania Senate on the drug issue. Republican Mehmet Oz attacked Democrat John Fetterman in a Pennsylvania Senate drug debate.

“John Fetterman supports the decriminalization of dangerous drugs like fentanyl and heroin,” states an attack ad for Republican Mehmet Oz in the US Senate race in Pennsylvania. Oz criticized Fetterman for his Democratic support for controlled drug injection sites, which Oz opposes. This idea remains controversial in the United States but has been supported by many general health experts, including the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

In Ohio, Republican Senate candidate J.D. Vance repeated the right-wing conspiracy theory that Democrats allow Mexican drug cartels to smuggle fentanyl into the United States. For the past two years, the Biden administration has tried — without much success, according to most experts — to reduce the flow of fentanyl into the United States. Many addiction advocates and public health experts argue that drug treatment should focus on treatment, not arrest.

In a later Senate debate, Ryan repeated the GOP’s ideas to stop fentanyl smugglers through tighter border security. “It’s definitely an emerging issue, and I think Republicans believe they have an advantage and can have an impact,” said Taylor, who added that fears about security and drugs could overshadow voters’ concerns about Democratic issues. Addiction activist Ryan Hampton meets Republican Representative Cathy McMorris Rogers during a stop in Spokane, Wash. Addiction activist Ryan Hampton, right.

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