Heroin addiction as a US campaign issue

A heroin epidemic in New Hampshire, which will hold the first presidential primary, has forced both Democratic and Republican candidates to address this nationwide problem. The surprising consensus is on the need for treatment versus jail time.

AP Photo
A woman sits inside the police station in Gloucester, Mass. and voluntarily coming to the police for help kicking her heroin addiction. Gloucester is taking a novel approach to the war on drugs, making the police station a first stop for addicts on the road to recovery. Addicts can turn in their drugs to police, no questions asked, and officers, volunteers and trained clinicians help connect them with detox and treatment services.

As hosts to the first presidential primary next year, the citizens of New Hampshire are stepping up to microphones at town halls and other forums to ask candidates about an urgent issue: a heroin epidemic. The Granite State is considered to have the country’s highest per capita addiction rate. And one poll shows nearly half of residents know someone who has abused heroin in the past five years.

Surprisingly, voters in New Hampshire are hearing bipartisan answers from many candidates about the need to help nonviolent addicts seek treatment rather than throw them in prison. On the primary trail, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has held a community forum on substance use. Former Florida Republican Gov. Jeb Bush said the first question at his first town hall was on heroin addiction. He says people must work together on the problem with a “recovery kind of philosophy.”

In his tours of the state, New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie is visiting addiction recovery centers and touting his own state’s success in getting first-time, nonviolent drug offenders into mandatory treatment. He says giving nonviolent drug offenders a way out will “create a society that understands that every life has value and no life is disposable.”

New Hampshire’s heroin concerns are being echoed in neighboring Vermont, where Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin used his entire State of the State address last year to discuss the “full-blown heroin crisis.” Nationwide the rate of deadly heroin overdoses has nearly quadrupled since 2002, raising doubts about the traditional method of putting addicts in jail. A common complaint from police chiefs is that “we can’t arrest our way out of this problem.”

A new nationwide emphasis on drug use as a health issue rather than a crime problem has led to various new approaches. A promising one, recently started in cities such as Gloucester, Mass., and Seattle diverts addicts into treatment without them being arrested, usually with the assistance of a police officer. The idea of turning law-enforcing cops into occasional social workers is not an easy one. But on Aug. 17, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy pledged $2.5 million to 15 hard-hit states in the Northeast with one aim being to educate police about treatment options for addicts. The announcement was generally supported by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican.

Studies still need to be done on whether early-diversion programs will work. In Santa Fe, N.M., the program is only a year old, but the state’s First Judicial District Attorney Angela Pacheco justifies it as necessary in order to help addicts “reclaim their integrity,” as she told the National Journal.

And in a testimony to Congress last month, she said the program is “about recognizing that a person with an opiate addiction is a person, not just another statistic, not another criminal defendant for me to prosecute, but someone whose life does matter.”

That is a sentiment now popular in New Hampshire, a state that is neither red nor blue, and where presidential candidates of both major parties are being asked to take a stand.

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