WASHINGTON — Christopher Hearsey had just turned 13 when he watched his father collapse from an overdose, the result of an addiction to pain medication that would tear his family apart.
David Trone, whose father had struggled with alcoholism, scrambled to save a nephew from heroin, only to learn that the 24-year-old died alone of an overdose days after Christmas.
Both men are now running for the open seat to represent Maryland’s 6th Congressional District — a competitive and crowded race in Western Maryland, where the opioid epidemic has become central and personal to a degree not seen in any other political contest in the state.
“It took me a really long time to figure out how my voice and my story could be helpful,” said Hearsey, a Gaithersburg Democrat, making his first run for office. “First and foremost, talking about it can be really helpful.”
Four Republicans and eight Democrats are running for the seat currently held by Rep. John Delaney, who announced last year he would leave Congress to seek the Democratic nomination for president.
The district, which offers Republicans their best chance to flip a Democratic seat in Maryland, includes portions of affluent and mostly liberal Montgomery County along with rural, conservative Western Maryland.
By some measures the opioid epidemic ravaging the nation and the state is not as pervasive in the district as in other parts of Maryland. The district’s five counties suffered 174 opioid-related deaths in the first nine months of last year, according to the state health department. The Baltimore region saw more than 900 during the same period.
But other data paint a bleaker picture of the situation, particularly in Western Maryland, home to some of the counties hit hardest by prescription opioid addiction. Allegany County had the highest rate of opioid prescriptions of any county in the state in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: 127 prescriptions for every 100 people.
That’s nearly double the national rate of 66.5 prescriptions per 100 people.
Democrat or Republican, many of the candidates have been personally affected by the crisis, which both President Donald Trump and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan have described as an emergency.
One lost a brother-in-law to an addiction she never knew he had. Another got a family member help, and considers herself “one of the lucky ones” because he is now clean. Two candidates have held town hall meetings on the opioid crisis, and most took part in a forum in January focused on that issue.
Korey Shorb, executive director of a treatment facility in Frederick called the Ranch, has taken part in events for both Trone, a Democrat, and Republican Amie Hoeber, who was the GOP nominee for the seat in the 2016 election.
“I don’t take a side; I just want to stop burying my friends,” said Shorb, who overcame his own struggle with opioids a decade ago. “This has been a problem in the inner city for years. Now that it’s affecting the suburban communities, people want to do something about it.”
Hearsey is a former aerospace engineer. His father, a police officer in California, started on Percocet after suffering an injury on the job. He survived the overdose, but continued to struggle with addiction until his death from heart failure in 2000.
After he collapsed in front of his son, Hearsey’s mother moved Hearsey and his sister out of the house.
Trone, the wealthy co-owner of a national liquor retailer, intervened in his nephew’s addiction, hiring attorneys to sort out his legal trouble and placing him in residential and out-patient treatment. Trone said Ian had been clean for nearly three years when he received a call in late 2016 alerting him that he was missing.
Trone was the first candidate to release a detailed plan on opioids. He has frequently told his nephew’s story.
“We’ve got to shed light on what’s happening,” he said. “Western Maryland is bearing the brunt of this.”
Hoeber, a defense consultant from Potomac, oversaw a similar intervention for a family member six years ago, she said. She declined to define her relationship with the person but says his recovery was successful and that he is now “a very productive member of society.”
“That was a very rough time for me, as it was for the rest of the family,” she said. “It’s always been an issue for me.”
Despite the shared experiences, there is little consensus among the candidates on how the federal government should address the problem. Trone has said he would support $100 billion in new funding over 10 years to confront the epidemic, allow the government to negotiate lower prices for overdose medication and expand prevention programs in grade school.
Hoeber said she supports additional funding but is wary of creating new federal bureaucracy that could stifle innovative local treatment programs.
Del. Aruna Miller, a Democrat from Darnestown, said she favors studying alternative treatments such as ibogaine, a plant that has been used for drug treatment outside the United States, as well as marijuana to help patients wean themselves from opioids.
Miller’s 55-year-old brother-in-law died in September.
“We had no idea that he was suffering from this. It was shocking,” Miller said. “It’s such a private struggle that people go through because there’s so much stigma associated with it. It shouldn’t feel like it’s a moral failure.”
Lisa Lloyd, a nurse practitioner from Potomac seeking the Republican nomination, said she sees patients every day who are wrestling with the question of whether to treat pain with opioids. As part of her job, she educates patients about the drugs. She regularly accesses a database called CRISP created by the state’s hospital systems that monitors opioid prescriptions in an effort to flag potential problems.
“The money is essential, but at the same time we need smart programs,” Lloyd said. “The answer is not necessarily a dollar amount dumped into a pot.”