GOP candidates call for end to stigma around drug addiction

Jim "Woods" Ellis
(AP Photo/Mel Evans)

HOOKSETT, N.H. (AP) — Republican presidential hopefuls called for a more compassionate discussion around drug addiction Tuesday that focuses on substance abuse as a curable disease, not a moral failing.

“We’ve been programmed in our society to talk about this as a moral failing,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said at the New Hampshire Forum on Addiction and the Heroin Epidemic. “As long as we continue to do this we’re going to treat this differently than other diseases.”

Home to the nation’s first 2016 presidential primary and a state that’s seen drug deaths skyrocket in recent years, New Hampshire’s prominent place on the campaign calendar has turned drug addiction into a hot issue on the campaign trail. Health officials estimate that about 400 people died from overdoses in New Hampshire in 2015 — including heroin and the powerful opiate fentanyl — more than doubling its own rate of overdose deaths in 2013.

Candidates have taken to visiting a peer-recovery center in Manchester, attending drug roundtables at local hospitals and sharing stories they hear on the trail from New Hampshire voters battling addiction. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and technology executive Carly Fiorina were scheduled to address the event later Tuesday. Both have deeply personal experiences with addiction. Fiorina’s step-daughter died from drug overdose in 2009, while Bush’s daughter has struggled with addiction.

In a post on the online platform Medium previewing his speech, Bush wrote of the suffering an entire family faces when one of its members struggles with addiction.

“It’s very debilitating when you have a loved one who is struggling, and you can’t control it,” Bush wrote. “You have to love them, but you also have to make it clear you cannot enable the behavior that gets them in trouble.”

Each of the candidates advocate for a similar slate of policies, including expanding drug courts, which send non-violent offenders through treatment programs, cracking down on dealers and doctors who overprescribe pain killers and placing a stronger focus on prevention. And they’re all calling for an end to the stigma surrounding drug addiction.

Injecting a dose of humility into his remarks, another GOP candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, admitted he has “no clue” what it’s like to fight addiction, but said that no one is too far gone to save. He said he’s come to understand the issue more deeply during his tenure as governor of Ohio as people shared their personal stories about addiction.

“You cannot give up, because there’s a purpose to your life, you understand that. Everybody in this room has a God-given potential to do something to change this world,” he said. “If you can climb out of it, people will learn from you.”

On policy, Kasich points to initiatives in Ohio aimed at expanding drug education in schools and his decision to expand Medicaid in Ohio, which he says has opened up more resources for treatment and other programs.

Christie, meanwhile, points to his record in New Jersey of focusing on treatment over incarceration for non-violent offenders. He says it’s incumbent upon the president to use the bully pulpit to address drug addiction in a meaningful way.

“We are contributing to the stigma by our unwillingness to talk about it openly,” he said.

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