Several GOP presidential candidates gathered in New Hampshire on Tuesday to discuss how the U.S. should respond to drug addiction.
Presidential candidates, the state’s top leaders and Granite State citizens affected by drug addiction met at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, sharing stories of personal experience with drug addiction and ideas on how to combat the disease in the U.S.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush spoke to granite state citizens about his own daughter’s battle with drug addiction, which was intensely scrutinized during his time in office.
“What I learned was that the pain that you feel when you have a loved one who has addiction challenges and kind of spirals out of control is something that is shared with a whole lot of people,” said Bush.
Bush’s daughter, Noelle Bush, faced felony charges after she tried to fill a fraudulent Xanax prescription when she was 24. She later was arrested after she was found with prescription pills and crack cocaine in her shoe. In a post on Medium, Bush wrote about the challenges his family faced while Noelle battled her addiction.
“As a father, I have felt the heartbreak of drug abuse,” Bush wrote. “I never expected to see my precious daughter in jail. It wasn’t easy, and it became very public when I was governor of Florida, making things even more difficult for Noelle. She went through hell, so did her mom, and so did I.”
Bush also used the forum as a chance to outline the drug control strategy he would enact if he were elected president. Bush’s plan attacks drugs from four fronts: preventing drug abuse and addiction, stopping the illegal trafficking of drugs from Mexico, strengthening the criminal justice system, and improving treatment and recovery programs across the country.
“For dealers, they ought to be put away forever as far as I’m concerned,” Bush said. “But users — I think we have to be a second-chance country.”
Bush also said that the way people look at those battling drug addiction needs to change in the United States.
“We should be able to talk about this without all the stigma attached to it,” Bush said. “We need to eliminate the stigma.”
New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who has made addressing the country’s drug addiction problem one the main issues of his political platform, also spoke at the forum Tuesday, reiterating that the way Americans treat drug addiction needs to change.
“You don’t go to a dinner party and say, you know what, my daughter is addicted to heroin, what’s new with you?” Christie said. “But if your daughter had cancer, you would tell people. We are contributing the stigma our unwillingness to talk about this openly.”
Christie also stressed how important it is for the next president to address drug addiction in a way that focuses on helping and treating addicts and moving away from incarcerating these individuals for non-violent offenses.
“We’ve been programmed in our society to talk about this as a moral failing,” said Christie. “As long as we continue to do this we’re going to treat this differently than other diseases.”
Businesswoman and GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina also participated in the forum and detailed her stepdaughter’s battle with the addiction that ultimately led to her death.
“There’s an old saying,” Fiorina said while speaking to the forum audience. “The eyes are the window to the soul. And as Lori grew progressively sicker, the sparkle, the potential, the possibilities that had once filled her life – disappeared from behind her eyes.”
Fiorina echoed the sentiment that the current system of incarceration we use to deal with substance addiction is failing the people who need help the most.
“The system we have today is part of the problem now, not part of the solution,” Fiorina said. “We now have the highest incarceration rates in the world. And the majority of people we have in prison are people like my daughter, Lori — struggling with addiction.”
Ohio governor John Kasich attended the forum and was surprised when he saw the event organizer, Jessica Nickel. Kasich met Nickel about twenty years ago when he heard her story about growing up the daughter of heroin addicts on the streets and living in a car throughout many of her high school years. Even facing these challenges, Nickel worked her way into Princeton University.
“You believe in miracles?” Kasich asked the forum audience. “Look in Jessica. You have to believe in yours.”
“Miracles are never used up. There’s always room for one more.” Kasich said, holding back tears.
Kasich also said that he questioned the effectiveness of school-run anti-drug programs and that alternative methods to keep American youth off of drugs should be considered.
New Hampshire is currently in the midst of one of the worst heroin epidemics in U.S. history. Opioid deaths in New Hampshire rose 76 percent in 2014, and there were about 400 deaths from heroin and opioid overdoses in 2015. In 2015, police in Manchester, the state’s largest city, responded to over 600 heroin and opioid overdoses, 69 of which were fatal.