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Amid heroin epidemic in New Hampshire, candidates talk substance abuse

Last modified: 8/30/2015 12:37:16 AM
Before New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie took the stage Saturday at the “Stop the Circle” rally to raise awareness about drug addiction, a teenager at the microphone spoke about losing her father to an overdose. Once the politician stepped down, a man 10 years in recovery took the stage.

Christie addressed the crowd for just a few minutes between them. The Republican presidential hopeful touched on his efforts in New Jersey to expand recovery services, including mandatory treatment for nonviolent, first-time drug offenders. Christie was one name on a long roster of speakers at the rally, including Manchester police Chief Nick Willard and U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte.

“Drug addiction is a disease,” he said, to applause from the small crowd gathered in the park.

As presidential hopefuls crisscross New Hampshire, the communities they visit are in the throes of an opioid epidemic. More than 320 people died from drug overdoses in the state in 2014. A July poll from the University of New Hampshire Survey Center showed a growing concern about substance abuse in the Granite State; 82 percent of respondents called the ongoing heroin problem “very serious.”

So on the campaign trail to the first-in-the-nation primary, a question about substance abuse is often one of the first asked.

Some candidates – like U.S. Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Bernie Sanders of Vermont – have focused on sentencing reform for drug crimes. Others touch on personal stories. In Merrimack earlier this month, former Florida governor and Republican Jeb Bush made reference to his daughter’s arrest in 2002 for trying to fill a false prescription; she was later sentenced to 10 days for possession of crack cocaine during her time at a drug rehab center. At that event, CNN reported Bush said addition is a “lifetime challenge” that needs a “recovery kind of philosophy.”

In an interview with the New Hampshire Union Leader, Bush pointed to his work to combat drug abuse as a governor, including drug courts.

“You’ve got to give people a second chance,” he told the paper’s editorial board.

Carly Fiorina, another Republican and the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, wrote about the death of her stepdaughter, who struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction and who died in 2009, in her latest book.

“All our hope for her and her life had died. . . . A heart can truly feel as though it is breaking apart into a thousand shattered pieces,” Fiorina wrote. Shortly after announcing her bid for the presidency, Fiorina mentioned the issue of substance abuse in a conference call with the Washington Post and other reporters.

“Drug addiction shouldn’t be criminalized,” she said.

At an event in Concord earlier this summer, Fiorina said HIPAA regulations, which are meant to protect a patient’s medical records and privacy, can be an unexpected barrier.

“It isn’t what was intended to happen, but what HIPAA has done to protect privacy and avoid stigmatizing people is it cuts people off who need help . . . from their families, their communities, their places of worship. . . . The people who know them and care about them can’t help them,” she said.

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton recently attended a community forum in Keene on substance abuse. In a one-on-one interview with the Monitor early in her campaign, Clinton said she had found the issue of substance abuse at the forefront in New Hampshire.

“You can’t cut health care for vulnerable people like extended Medicaid and deal with these problems, you can’t cut community resources that are public-private partnerships and deal with this problem, you can’t close the remaining few facilities that will take care of low-income people and deal with this problem,” she said. “So some states are doing better on certain categories than others, but we’ve got to get some national attention paid to this, try to remove the stigma, pull it into the spotlight so that families are not suffering alone and we do have more opportunities.”

In May, Martin O’Malley – 
a Democratic candidate, the former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor – talked with the Monitor about his efforts in his home state to reduce higher-than-ever overdose deaths. He implemented a program called “DrugStat” to evaluate treatment programs, and he said the Affordable Care Act has nationally increased access to substance abuse treatment and mental health services.

“The one issue I’ve been most successful and least successful at tackling as an executive is drug abuse and the death is causes,” O’Malley said.

As Christie turned to leave the rally, he hugged organizer Melissa Laferriere.

“There’s a stigma so strong that it’s making addicts not want to come forward,” Laferriere said later.

In his brief address, Christie said the president of the United States needs to be someone who will address the issue of substance abuse and addiction.

“That’s why I’m here today,” he said.

“Let’s fix this problem,” he added. “Let’s stop the circle.”

(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321, mdoyle@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)


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