FRANKFORT, Ky. — Republican Rand Paul's opposition to federal funding for state and local drug enforcement initiatives could cost him votes in a region likely to be a key battleground in the U.S. Senate race.
Paul wants to cut federal funding for undercover drug investigations and drug treatment programs. 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.
"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 concerns.
"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
As a Republican, businesswoman Carrie Cinnamond-Rose leans toward Paul, but she's 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.
Desperate addicts in search of a fix have forced some drug stores in Kentucky's mountain region to lock pharmacists behind bulletproof glass and painkillers inside vaults.
Paul's campaign strategy requires winning all of Kentucky's rural vote, including Appalachia, and staying close in Louisville and Lexington, where voters tend to favor Democrats. Conway has been using 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 favorite, shows libertarian leanings on drugs. He 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. 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 and hasn't said how local and state governments would pay for the rest.
Ed Schemelya, point man in the federal government's marijuana eradication program that confiscated roughly $2 billion 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.
Conway also supports Operation UNITE, a federal initiative providing undercover narcotics investigations and addiction treatment. The state puts up about $2 million and the federal share of $4.3 million comes mostly from federal earmarks. Paul has pledged not to request earmarks and 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 said.