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Former R.I. state senator opens up about his own addiction in Congressional hearing

Former state Senator Tom Coderre and state health director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott testified about overdoses before the U.S. Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control

Tom Coderre, acting deputy assistant HHS secretary for mental health and substance use at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, during a hearing of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control holds on Capitol Hill July 20, 2021, in Washington, DC.BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

PROVIDENCE — Former state Sen. Tom Coderre testified in front of the U.S. Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control on Tuesday during a hearing that examined the federal response to the drug overdose epidemic.

Coderre, who eventually became chief of staff to former state Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, is currently acting deputy assistant secretary for mental health and substance use.

In his testimony, he said he wanted to tell the story about a man who had led what appeared to be a “normal life.” He said he was involved with his community, was surrounded by friends and family, and was elected to the state senate at 25.


By 30, Coderre said, he had risen in his career to become the executive director of a large non-profit agency.

“On the outside, everything about this man’s life looked normal. Some would even say perfect,” said Coderre. “However, on the inside, he was tortured. So he turned, first to alcohol and then to drugs to cope with the stresses he was experiencing.”

Coderre added, “Underestimating the power of these substances and not understanding the neurological consequences of taking them, he quickly became addicted.”

He explained how his life started to “unravel” around him. He said he resisted help or treatment from loved ones, lost his job, lost his position in the Rhode Island State Senate, and his health started to deteriorate. He also claimed to have lost his apartment and became homeless.

“He lost his spirit. In the end, he lost everything. Even his desire to live,” said Coderre of himself. “This man’s life, which at one time was so full of hope, became hopeless.”

Coderre revealedat the end of his testimony that he was telling his own life story. He was able to eventually get the help he needed and has been sober since May 15, 2003, he said.


“With help, people can and do recover from substance abuse,” said Coderre. He said while he was there as a representative from the agency, he was also there to represent the 22 million Americans who have resolved their issues with addiction.

Coderre’s testimony comes just a week after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report that said overdose deaths sourced to a record 93,000 in 2020, which is a 29 percent increase from 2019. Public health experts said lockdowns and pandemic-related restrictions isolated those with drug addictions and made accessing treatment more difficult.

“Even one life lost is too many,” said Coderre. He said his agency is focused on intervention, treatment, recovery-support, and by furthering telehealth services to increase access.

Rhode Island’s state health director, Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, also testified Tuesday in front of co-chairmen Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, and Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa.

Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of state Department of Health.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

“Over the last two years, there have been many, many stories of recovery and hope in Rhode Island that are true inspirations,” said Alexander-Scott. “But during this time, there have been many tragic stories of heartbreak and loss. Some of which could have been preventable.”

Overdose deaths, she said, increased in Rhode Island in 2020 by 25 percent compared to 2019, making it the state’s worst year on record. And she said the preliminary numbers for 2021 so far, “aren’t looking good.”

She said three out of every four overdose deaths involve fentanyl, which has been found in samples of heroin, cocaine, and in other drugs.


However, she said that Governor Dan McKee’s Overdose Prevention and Intervention Task Force, which was developed under former governor and now US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo in 2015, has recently been making meaningful strides in tackling the epidemic. She said the number of people receiving new opioid prescriptions reduced from 41,820 in the first quarter of 2017 to 26,025 in the first quarter of 2021. She said the number of overall opioid prescriptions prescribed in the same time period was reduced from 153,025 to 103,228 — a reduction of 33 percent.

But she said part of the state’s battle against the crisis also includes harm reduction.

Most recently, in December 2020, Rhode Island launched the 10,000 Chances Project, which is a statewide initiative to get more than 10,000 intranasal naloxone kits into the hands of Rhode Islanders at the risk of overdose, as well as their loved ones.

“Rhode Island understands that there are some people who are not yet ready for treatment, and so we believe it is critical that we help provide services and supports to help save their lives,” said Alexander-Scott.

Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.