Elizabeth Warren comes face-to-face with the opioid epidemic in West Virginia and Ohio

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First in West Virginia and then again, hours later, in Ohio, Sen. Elizabeth Warren posed the same question.Raise your hand, the Massachusetts Democrat...

Posted: May 12, 2019 9:01 AM

First in West Virginia and then again, hours later, in Ohio, Sen. Elizabeth Warren posed the same question.

Raise your hand, the Massachusetts Democrat said, if you "know someone who's been caught in the grips of addictions" or "who's been lost to addiction."

Twice Warren asked and twice the people seated around her in folding chairs lifted their arms, almost matter-of-factly, to say that, yes, they knew.

Warren's trip here followed the Wednesday rollout of her opioid crisis proposal, which would provide $100 billion for treatment, provider support and funding for research over a decade. On Friday in Kermit, West Virginia, the 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful said the plan would seek to go around state governments and deliver the resources to community leaders in the hardest hit towns and cities.

West Virginia and Ohio are the two deadliest states for drug overdoses, according to recent federal surveys, and Kermit is often cited as ground zero of the opioid epidemic. A congressional report revealed last year that a pharmaceutical company had shipped more than 3 million prescription pills over 10 months -- about 10,000 a day on average -- to a single pharmacy in the town of about 400 people.

More than 47,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2017, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The plan from Warren and Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, called the CARE Act, would focus on the epicenters of the epidemic and provide support to state and nonprofit recovery efforts. They introduced a similar bill in 2018.

"Addiction is a medical problem. It needs a medical solution and I've got a plan for that," Warren said inside a firehouse in Kermit on Friday morning, outlining her proposal before turning her focus to the drug companies. "We need to hold those executives personally liable. I'm talking handcuffs and perp walks. Because until there's some personal responsibility -- so long as it's upside, they can just keep getting richer and richer and all the money is on one side and all the hurt is on the other."

About three hours north, in Chillicothe, Ohio, Warren was introduced by the Democratic mayor, Luke Feeney, who called his city "a bellwether for the state" heading into the 2020 elections. As Warren shook hands and took pictures after the discussion there, Feeney told CNN he wasn't surprised by the response to Warren's first question.

"If all the hands didn't go up, they probably could have," he said. "I'm glad that there's candidates talking about a plan. We are seeing maybe the epidemic slow down some, but the impact, the long-term impact that we're going to see, with children being raised by grandparents or great grandparents -- we're just not equipped for that and we need a plan and infrastructure to back that plan up."

The federal response, which has ticked up under the Trump administration, was still "too slow coming," Feeney said. Warren's proposal to bypass state governments and allow local elected officials, presumably with better handles on how and where to direct the funds, appealed to him.

"Voters are intelligent and I think they've become somewhat frustrated and desensitized somewhat -- that's an understatement -- with the gridlock," he said. "Conveying that there is hope, that there is some future (is important), because otherwise it's hopeless, right? And that's not the business that I want to be in."

But in a region that has suffered such devastating losses, it will be difficult to convince some voters -- especially Republicans already skeptical or outright disdainful of Democrats like Warren -- that this time around, even with the new promise of $100 billion and a detailed plan of action, will be different.

Steps outside Warren's event in Kermit, a group of men -- most of them President Donald Trump supporters -- stood quietly with their arms crossed. About a hundred yards down the road a more vocal band, their cars and trucks festooned in "Trump 2020" banners and flags, honked and chanted. Mingo County is in the heart of Trump Country. The President defeated Hillary Clinton there by nearly 70 percentage points in 2016.

Eric May, an Iraq War veteran who lives in town, was mostly silent as he watched Warren discuss her plan. The talk about "handcuffs and perp walks" for pharmaceutical executives was fine, May said, but he didn't believe it would ever happen.

"(Politicians) said it for years and nothing's changed," May told CNN. "They went on about Oxycontin. They took out Oxycontin, OK? They said we're taking Oxycontin off the market. First they tried to take it and fix it to where people couldn't snort it or shoot it. They fixed it where it would gel up if it got wet and came into contact with moisture. So then it was useless like that, and all they could do is take it by mouth. They said, well, Oxycontin's killing people, so let's do away with it. But then they replaced it with a pill that was 7 to 10 times stronger than Oxycontin. When they came out with Opana -- Oxymorphone is what it's actually called... This community is riddled with it."

His skepticism ran deep.

"This doesn't seem like that we're just here to talk about a problem with opioids," he said. "This is something to try to maybe get into a few people in the community and maybe pull a few votes."

Asked after the event about the reaction from just outside and broader concerns over whether her plan -- even among those who looked favorably on it -- would ever come to pass, Warren stuck to the details and made a bipartisan appeal.

"We start with the ultra-millionaire's tax, which is very popular among Democrats, independents and Republicans, and once you've got the money in hand, then the question of how to divide it to make the investments where they most need to be made -- I don't think it's hard to build a coalition to put that money in communities that are suffering from the opioid epidemic," Warren said. "Keep in mind, there are Republicans and Democrats who are dying from overdoses. There are red states and blue states that are just struggling with a problem that gets bigger and bigger and bigger."

Mariana Henry, who works at a downtown bar in Chillicothe and attended Warren's meeting there at the AMVETS Post 4 on Friday afternoon, shared the candidate's optimism -- but emphasized the scope of the task.

"I see people on drugs every day," she told CNN. "I see people come in (to the bar) on drugs. I walked by a gentleman last week, on drugs, walking with two small children in the park, in this park downtown. So you see it and you see it a lot around here."

Henry said she had hope that, with enough money behind it, Warren's plan could break through.

"Those are our neighbors. If we don't take care of them, they're going to be breaking into my house, they're going to be breaking into my car. It will affect me just as much as it affects everyone else," she said. "I don't want my kid going to school with half the population on drugs."

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