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Presidential candidates relate tales of addiction, but are short on answers

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican presidential candidate, greeted the crowd at a substance abuse forum last month in Manchester, N.H.Jim Cole/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — On the stump, Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina regularly recount struggles within their own families over drug addiction. A viral video of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaking about the overdose death of a close friend gave his campaign a boost in the Granite State.

But even as they strike powerful emotional chords about the toll of drug abuse, a review of candidates’ statements and policy outlines shows that few offer concrete proposals to combat the national scourge of opiate addiction.

“For those candidates, Carly and Jeb and Christie, to say they have these personal stories — fine, we all have these stories. Tell me what you’re going to do. You’re not running to be storyteller-in-chief,” said Patrick Kennedy, a former US representative from Rhode Island who has battled drug and alcohol abuse and who is a national advocate for changing the way addiction is treated in the health care system.

“Governor Christie is probably the most articulate in terms of conveying that this is a disease,” Kennedy said. “But the bottom line is people are dying by the scores in New Jersey, just as they are in New Hampshire.”


Advocates say they have told candidates from both parties that the federal government needs to more aggressively combat addiction. That includes more money for addiction treatment and guidance for what steps states can take to curb abuse.

Democrats, too, have either no plan or weak plans, some critics say. In a December debate in Manchester, N.H., Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders called for a “radical” change to how addiction is treated in America, saying it is a “disease, not a criminal activity.” But despite representing a state awash with the problem, he has not detailed how he would address the crisis as president.

Hillary Clinton announced in the New Hampshire Union Leader in September her $10 billion proposal to treat addiction. Clinton is the only candidate whose plan comes with a price tag. And although she has released more details than most candidates, some advocates brushed off her five-point plan as a “token fix” expanding the same ineffective strategies in place today.


Christie frequently visits recovery centers while campaigning in New Hampshire, where voters have identified drug addiction as one of their top concerns. His campaign aired his first ad last fall in New Hampshire with Christie’s remarks at a town hall, saying he’s “pro-life” not only for the baby in the womb but also for the “16-year-old drug addict who’s laying on the floor of the county jail.”

During an addiction forum in Hooksett, N.H., this month, Christie touted his proposal to create a drug court in each of the 93 federal court districts so that nonviolent offenders would be offered treatment instead of jail. The money saved by keeping people out of prison, he said, should be shifted to creating more treatment programs.

But critics in his home state say Christie has not been effective in treating addiction. A Star Ledger editorial said New Jersey invested less in treatment in 2015 than when Christie took office in 2010. Three-quarters of drug addicts who needed treatment in New Jersey did not receive it in 2013 because treatment centers were full or had shut down, according to the Newark newspaper.

A Christie campaign spokeswoman rejected those assertions, saying the governor has enacted reforms that emphasized treatment.


Drug courts are an old idea, and all states have them; but few, with the exception of New Jersey, make it mandatory or offer it in every county, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

“How a president talks about this matters,” Christie said at the New Hampshire forum. “I’ll get to concrete steps, too, but I think how you talk about it is a concrete step. We don’t talk about this in public as a disease. We talk about this as a moral failing.”

Bush’s plan to combat the addiction crisis, unveiled this month, focuses on better parenting and increased border security to stem drug traffic. In more concrete terms, he would expand drug courts and improve prescription drug monitoring. But the former Florida governor has not identified costs or described how his plan would work.

“I don’t think that every problem needs to be solved by more spending, but this was a huge priority,” Bush said. “And conservatives and liberals alike believed it to be that way.”

Bush released a 60-second ad in New Hampshire titled “Recovery,” featuring him telling voters about his daughter, Noelle, spending time in jail, then drug court.

“There’s a solution to this, but it requires leadership,” he said in the ad.

Other candidates have been more vague.

Front-runner Donald Trump has said the wall he wants to build along the Mexican border would keep out drugs.

Ohio Governor John Kasich said that teachers should preach a weekly antidrug message but that prevention education would not require more money.


“You get up in front of sixth-graders and all you have to do is once a week you say, ‘Let me tell you something: don’t do drugs, OK?’ That’s what we need to be doing,” Kasich said. Last fall, Kasich allocated $1.5 million to expand Ohio’s prescription drug monitoring system to alert pharmacists to addicts shopping for painkillers.

Fiorina, whose stepdaughter, Lori Ann, died of a drug overdose, released her plan this month in an op-ed in Time. The former Hewlett Packard executive said the nation needed to invest more in mental health and treating drug addiction but does not say how much more. She advocated for treatment over prison for nonviolent offenders but does not detail how she would do so. She praised specific state programs but does not say how she would expand them.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz has also connected with voters by talking on many occasions about the death of his half-sister from drugs. But other than criticizing “harsh mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug crimes” as ineffective, unfair, and contributing to prison overpopulation, he has not released a plan to combat the opiate crisis.

“We’re hearing a lot of well-tailored personal messages that grab headlines, but I’m not seeing any concrete substance to proposals being presented,” said John Burns, of Somersworth, N.H., a recovering drug addict who founded Families Hoping and Coping in 2014.


Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who has criticized the “War on Drugs” and sponsored a bill to expand specialized treatment for prescription drug and heroin addiction, has said providing jobs would help curb the addiction crisis. “If you work all day long, you don’t have time to do heroin,” he said in New Hampshire last fall.

The only problem: New Hampshire has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, yet the number of people dying from opiate overdoses is projected to rise more than 23 percent in 2015 from the previous year, according to the state medical examiner.

Tracy Jan can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @TracyJan.