U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson said Monday that the country’s opioid epidemic has hit families across Wisconsin, including his own.
The Republican from Oshkosh said that within the last few months he had a nephew die of a heroin overdose. Citing privacy concerns of his family, he didn’t want to give the name of the individual.
“I’ve talked to so many people in Wisconsin who have been affected by this,” Johnson said. “It’s not the reason I want to champion this cause. I want to champion this cause because this is affecting so many lives.”
“But I’m just pointing out the fact that I have first-hand experience… it happened in our own family,” he said.
Johnson was speaking during a teleconference with Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel. They were discussing the recent U.S. Senate passage of Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which authorizes grants to states to expand drug treatment and prevention.
Johnson and his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, both voted to approve the measure that passed 94-1. There is a companion bill in the House.
Johnson said his nephew’s problem “started with a sports injury, addiction to pain medications.”
Johnson said that with the price of heroin coming down so dramatically, it’s often cheaper to use the dangerous street drug than to purchase opiate prescription drugs.
“This was a tragedy affecting all elements of society,” he said. “That’s why it has to be addressed.”
Schimel said when figures are released for 2015, he anticipates drug overdose deaths will overtake falls as the “No. 1 cause of injury death in our state.”
Schimel said the issue goes beyond just the individuals and families facing addiction.
“This is driving a spike in every kind of crime in our state,” he said.
Earlier Monday, Johnson spoke at the Greater Praise Church of God in Christ in Milwaukee. Johnson’s staff has worked with the church’s pastor, Jerome Smith, on a project to link inner-city residents with companies in Sheboygan County, where workers are needed.
Under the Joseph Project, Smith recruits individuals who then work with Johnson’s staff during a weeklong training program to enhance their job skills.
“It’s working,” Johnson said. “The program is still in its infancy but we’ve had 67 people go through five classes. I think 27 have jobs, 25 have job offers pending. Other than our Senate staff doing constituent service, no government funding is involved. This is a private-sector, faith-based type of initiative that is trying to help one person at a time.”
Johnson was asked about the protests Friday that led to the cancellation of GOP front-runner Donald Trump’s rally in Chicago.
“It makes me feel very depressed about our political process, in all honesty. It’s not a good sign,” Johnson said.
Johnson faces a re-election campaign against Democrat Russ Feingold. He said he has concerns “across the board” about the nation’s political climate.
“We have demagogues on all sides of the political spectrum. It’s not helpful. It’s destructive. It’s harmful,” he said. “So, I don’t like demagoguery whether it comes from the left, it comes from the right.”
“We have a political process here,” he added. “In the end, we should settle those disputes by voting. With honest discussion, free speech, let people’s voices be heard. People can protest. But please let the discussion, let the debate continue. In the end we’ll vote in November and we’ll decide the direction of this country.”