Christopher Wilson and Caitlin Dickson
Wed, October 19, 2022
Drug policy has been a key issue in the race between Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Dr. Mehmet Oz for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat, elevating the focus of the candidates’ records on marijuana and opioids.
Legalizing marijuana and addressing the opioid crisis are both supported by large swaths of Pennsylvania voters. According to a CBS News poll from last month, 66% of registered voters in the state support legalizing recreational marijuana. Another September poll by CBS News and YouGov found that 67% of Pennsylvanians think drug or opioid addiction is a major problem in the state.
But while voters seem to be largely in agreement on these issues, the two Senate candidates have taken notably different approaches toward them on the campaign trail.
Fetterman has been a major supporter of weed legalization and has discussed broader possibilities for drug policy reform, positions that have been used against him in the race. Oz has discussed the opioid crisis on the campaign trail, but his extensive history as a public medical figure reveals mixed messages and evolving positions on the issue.
Yahoo News contacted both the Fetterman and Oz campaigns for comment.
While serving as lieutenant governor, Fetterman toured every county in the state to discuss legalization and hung a weed flag from his office in Harrisburg. When he spoke with President Biden in early September, he called on him to decriminalize the drug. The following month, Biden asked his administration to “expeditiously” look into that process as he announced a plan to issue pardons for federal marijuana possession convictions.
Fetterman celebrated the decision in a statement, saying, “People’s lives should not be derailed because of minor, nonviolent marijuana-related offenses.”
Oz and his allies, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s super-PAC, have hammered Fetterman on criminal justice, including comments he’s made about drug policy and his work on the state Board of Pardons. In an August ad attacking Fetterman, Oz’s campaign showed a bong coming out of the candidate’s head and the sound of someone coughing.
Republicans have also attacked Fetterman for comments he made in 2018 when he suggested that needle exchanges and supervised injection sites could be a safe way to deal with the thousands of deaths due to the drug crisis, saying, “You have to have everything on the table that has a chance of making it better, in my opinion.”
During Oz’s August appearance with Sean Hannity, a major booster of his campaign, the banner across the bottom of the screen read, “Far-left Fetterman has history of supporting legalized drug dens.”
In 2015, Fetterman told the Nation magazine that he was for decriminalizing drugs “across the board. I see it as a public-health issue, not a criminal issue.” However, in an interview with the PennLive editorial board last week, he said, “I never for once advocated legalizing any of these things. … It was simply only about addressing having an honest conversation about addiction.”
A spokesperson for Oz’s campaign told the Philadelphia Inquirer in September that Fetterman has a “long and radical past of advocating to decriminalize drugs.”
”I don’t know what’s crazier: advocating for decriminalizing heroin or thinking you can blatantly lie to the press and voters about decriminalizing heroin and thinking you’ll get away with it,” Oz spokesperson Brittany Yanick said.
A Fetterman campaign spokesperson told the newspaper that the lieutenant governor “does not support decriminalizing all drugs, including heroin, methamphetamines, and other hard drugs.”
Oz has supported marijuana reform — including calling Biden’s actions “rational” in a recent NBC News interview — while also belittling Fetterman for his work on the issue. In 2017, he said medical marijuana could be a solution to the opioid crisis, then in a July 2020 interview he called marijuana “one of the most underused tools in America,” adding, “We ought to completely change our policy on marijuana. It absolutely works.”
Earlier this month, Oz reiterated this stance, telling the Pennsylvania Orthopaedic Society that he has “become more and more comfortable with the idea that we can use medical marijuana to handle all kinds of complaints from patients.”
The opioid crisis
During those remarks, Oz also addressed the opioid crisis, another prominent issue in Pennsylvania, saying he hears stories about it while traveling to visit voters, saying it’s “rare that I go somewhere and don’t hear about a family affected, by fentanyl in particular.”
In a plan he released geared toward Black communities, Oz said he would he would “fight to put addicts into detox centers and fund rehab programs to save lives.” He also shared a CNN clip to his Twitter account last month showing him offering to take Pennsylvanians to a detox center.
Oz has written and spoken about opioids over his time as a public figure, and has partnered with and invested in companies that have played roles in the opioid crisis.
The 2006 book “You: The Smart Patient,” which he co-authored with Dr. Michael Roizen and the Joint Commission, a nonprofit that accredits U.S. hospitals, includes a passage endorsing the use of prescription opioids for pain following surgery: “Some people are afraid of becoming addicted to opioids, but that risk is only about 1 in 7,000 and even then it’s mostly a risk in patients who take them continually for chronic pain. So treat yourself right: use the strong stuff to get rid of the pain and get active.”
Dr. Andrew Kolodny, president of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing and one of the country’s leading experts on the prescription opioid crisis, said that while it’s true that opioid addiction is more commonly associated with long-term use, he called the 1-in-7,000 statistic cited in the book “completely false” and “outrageous.”
Kolodny told Yahoo News that he’s not sure where the statistic came from, but that it echoes other similarly misleading claims that prescription opioid manufacturers were using around the time Oz’s book was published, to push the “bogus notion of addiction being extremely rare.”
Kolodny also said the Joint Commission’s involvement in the book is particularly problematic, given the accreditation group’s own alleged role in the opioid crisis. In the early 2000s, the Joint Commission issued new standards for hospitals that encouraged treating pain as a priority, and published a guide sponsored by Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, that downplayed the risks associated with prescription opioids, claiming that “there is no evidence that addiction is a significant issue when persons are given opioids for pain control.”
Kolodny said that Oz “teaming up with the Joint Commission on a book that downplays the risk of addiction to opioids, that’s pretty bad.”
“He was really part of disseminating false information about opioids,” he said.
Yahoo News made multiple attempts to reach Oz’s campaign for comment.
In more recent years, Oz has adopted a more discerning tone toward opioids, particularly as a treatment of chronic pain. He and Roizen have written numerous syndicated columns suggesting that the risk of opioid addiction can be minimized by treating chronic pain with alternative measures such as meditation, exercise and acupuncture.
Oz owns stock in McKesson, which was the top distributor of prescription pain pills to Pennsylvania from 2006 to 2014, according to DEA data obtained by the Washington Post. In February 2022, McKesson announced an agreement to contribute up to $7.4 billion to a nationwide settlement, along with two other major drug distributors, for opioid-related lawsuits brought by state and local government entities.
At the time, McKesson stated, “While the companies continue to strongly dispute the allegations made against them, they believe that the implementation of this settlement is a key milestone toward achieving broad resolution of governmental opioid claims and delivering meaningful relief to communities across the United States that have been impacted by the opioid epidemic.”
According to Oz’s financial disclosure forms, he reported $15,001 to $50,000 in investments in McKesson in 2022, from which he reported receiving an income of $50,001 to $100,000. Last month, CNBC reported that McKesson is also a distributor of hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial that Oz has controversially touted as a treatment for COVID-19, as well as Thermo Fisher Scientific, a supplier of the medication. And in June, Salon reported that Oz invested up to $715,000 in companies that he has repeatedly blamed during his campaign for the rising cost of insulin.
“It’s not so much that hydroxychloroquine hurt patients that had COVID — it’s a relatively safe drug,” Dr. Mark Lopatin, a retired rheumatologist, said at a roundtable arranged by Fetterman’s campaign earlier this month in Philadelphia. “But it meant that many patients used that as an alternative to other treatments. The other things we see are the downstream ramifications. Because hydroxychloroquine was touted as a cure for COVID, I had trouble getting [it] for my patients.”
Fetterman has been attacking Oz on his history of promoting questionable medical advice and products on his show, often appearing to show a lack of vetting before the broadcast went out to millions. In 2014, Oz testified in front of a Senate committee to defend weight-loss products he had promoted, including green coffee beans, which were investigated by the Federal Trade Commission. The company pushing the product, Applied Food Sciences, eventually settled for $3.5 million after it was sued for allegedly using “bogus weight-loss claims and fake news websites” to market the product.
“Words like ‘revolutionary,’ ‘miracle,’ ‘magic’ … have two things in common,” Lopatin said at the roundtable. “These words have been used by Dr. Oz to promote a product on his show. They are also buzzwords for quack cures.”
While Fetterman has consistently led in polling, his lead has narrowed in recent weeks, with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report changing the race’s rating from “Lean Democrat” to “Toss-Up” on Oct. 4. The two are scheduled for their only debate on Oct. 25, when the discussion of crime and drug policy is likely to play a key role, as well as how Fetterman has recovered from a stroke in May.
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