The Indiana gubernatorial candidates said during a debate Tuesday that they believe the state should do more to attack the growing abuse of heroin and other drugs.
Democrat John Gregg and Republican Eric Holcomb both pointed to proposals they've made for addressing the problem as federal statistics show Indiana saw a 59 percent jump in overall drug overdose deaths between 2006 and 2014.
Gregg pointed to Indiana's rankings among the states with the highest levels of methamphetamine and heroin use and overdose deaths. He said drug dealers and traffickers need to be locked up, but that the state could see long-term savings by spending on rehabilitation programs.
"To many Hoosiers, we need to realize this is a medical issue and we need to treat it as such," Gregg said. "... We cannot afford just to continue to build prisons."
Legislators approved a law last year allowing counties to request approval for needle-exchange programs in response to an HIV outbreak in southern Indiana's Scott County that has been the worst such outbreak in state history. Many counties, however, have had to scramble to find money from nonprofits, foundations, donations or county coffers to run the programs, which provide intravenous drug users with clean syringes and collect used ones to reduce needle-sharing and prevent the spread of HIV, hepatitis C and other diseases.
Holcomb said drug abuse is strangling many families and communities around Indiana and that he would support the state providing money to operate needle-exchange programs.
"We need to make sure that is more efficient and if we have to change the law to do it, we will," Holcomb said.
Establishing more treatment and prevention programs will also be priorities, he said.
Holcomb and Gregg split over whether Indiana should join other states in legalizing medical marijuana use.
Holcomb said he would want to talk more with medical experts about the need but was reluctant to support such a step.
"Right now, in the world that we're living in, expanding or legalizing drugs of this nature isn't on my list," he said.
Twenty-five states — including Illinois, Michigan and Ohio — now allow medical marijuana use, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports legalization.
Gregg said he supports allowing medical marijuana, citing his father's painful death from cancer of the esophagus. Gregg said his father's doctors never suggested marijuana use for him, but if they had "we should have had that right to let my dad use that to alleviate pain and suffering."
Tuesday's debate at the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville focused on health and social issues, but Holcomb and Gregg weren't asked about their differences over extending state civil rights protections to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
Recent polls have shown Gregg slightly ahead of Holcomb as he's tried to label Holcomb as a rubber stamp who supported GOP Gov. Mike Pence on matters such as Indiana's religious-objections law that sparked a national uproar from opponents who maintained it sanctioned discrimination against gays and lesbians.
Gregg, a former Indiana House speaker, did say during the debate that the state ought to adopt greater gay-rights protections.
Holcomb, who was picked by Pence to become lieutenant governor in March, didn't address the topic, but has said previously that few people have raised the topic with him around the state and that he sees no prospect for compromise in the Republican-dominated General Assembly.
Big money has been pouring into the race from out of state as the Indiana race is regarded as one of the most competitive of the dozen governor's offices up for grabs in the Nov. 8 elections.
Tuesday's debate included a genial exchange after weeks of contentious campaigning when the moderator mixed up the candidates, prompting Gregg to joke that they've spent $10 million so that people know who's who.
Gregg cracked "I'm the tall one," while Holcomb stands several inches taller. Holcomb replied, "I'm the hair-challenged one" next to the bald Gregg. They then traded a semi high-five/fist bump.