Politicians and the Addicts in Their Families

Ever since I was named to the Governor’s Council in 2011, I have increasingly thought about how politicians and the media influence and impact public perception (and thus, public policy) on addiction. I initially had high hopes for Governor Christie, as he was a former prosecutor who had talked about expanding the Drug Courts and the importance of treatment. As time went by, I saw that he talked a good game but neither provided additional funding to prevention/treatment/recovery services nor signed off on forward thinking bills. After his office delayed the NJ Heroin and Opiate Task Force report for over a year, I became a vocal public critic of the Governor. Last July, I wrote about how Mr. Christie has no shot at becoming President (and I listed his scandals and failures with lots of references) and offered advice about how he can be more effective in his remaining two years in office, with a particular focus on addressing substance addiction and recovery.

Last November, a speech by Mr. Christie in New Hampshire about his mother’s tobacco use and his law classmate’s addiction went viral and sent the political media into a tizzy (even liberal pundits said they were impressed). Mr. Christie talked about how it was a public health issue and that people with addictions should get treatment, rather than be arrested. I appeared on NPR with Brian Lehrer to discuss Mr. Christie’s speech and whether his policies match his rhetoric (spoiler alert: they don’t). That said, empty rhetoric is better than no rhetoric. From 2011 to 2015, I attended the Rutgers Edward J. Bloustein School of Public Policy and I spoke with multiple professors about my problems with Governor Christie and his empty rhetoric. Their responses can be summed up easily:

1) No one wins or loses elections talking about mental health or addiction policy

2) Even if a politician doesn’t actually do anything about it, the fact that he or she is talking about these issues brings it to the fore and allows for greater public awareness

In mid-December, I interviewed Sam Quinones, the author of Dreamland, which provides the best account of the history of heroin and the American opiate epidemic that I’ve come across. We talked for 80 minutes, and parts of that interview will be released on other professional sites. Mr. Quinones and I discussed Governor Christie and the rhetoric of politicians, and he echoed my policy professors’ views:

Frank Greenagel: It is election season, and I’ve been very critical of my own state governor, Governor Christie. He got a lot of press a month ago by giving an impassioned speech about his mother’s tobacco use and his law school buddy’s drug problem. Conservatives liked it and Democrats liked it and he was praised on MSNBC. I’ve heard the speech before, but when push comes to shove, he doesn’t fund anything. He still criminalizes marijuana; I’m for the decriminalization of it. He criminalizes marijuana, he hasn’t funded treatment bills, he resisted naloxone expansion, he resisted the Good Samaritan law. There’s point after point after point, so his rhetoric soars high above his actual policies. What happened after his speech is that politicians on both sides of the aisle have been tripping over themselves in announcing that they have a friend who is an addict. Or my family member is an alcoholic. I’d like you to speak to that. I know you like what Governor Kasich did in Ohio. Is there anyone else or anyone that has any kind of policies that said anything that seems to get it or is it all just a kind of campaign bravado, like I’ve seen from Governor Christie?

Sam Quinones: Regardless of what follow-throughs he did or did not do, the mere fact that people are beginning to talk about it is really important and remarkable. I don’t know his record in New Jersey in funding programs or passing laws. I did think it was interesting to listen to him to say that because those words spoken 15 years before would have disqualified him from the Republican nomination. His campaign would have halted right then. Now, you can see these Republicans now are, again, as you say, tripping over themselves trying to tell the most gripping story of addiction in their family, which I think is a huge step forward. I really do. I think it’s very important. I don’t know that I see anyone who has understood the issue well enough. Nor do I even think Barack Obama does. I watched him at the Charleston, West Virginia town hall meeting that he held and it seemed to me that it was an issue that was far off for him. He did not feel comfortable with it, didn’t know how to pronounce naloxone and this kind of thing. That’s understandable. He’s got ISIS. He’s got a million other things that are important, but it seems to me that it’s still in the phase where people are approaching this, or not entirely comfortable with this topic yet.

About a week after Governor Christie’s New Hampshire talk, Ben Carson responded to a question about addiction by not answering and instead chose to talk about political correctness. I pilloried him for it in an article, and took that as an opportunity to write about past Presidential families and their problems with addictions (Adams, Roosevelt, Ford). Unlike Mr. Christie, Dr. Carson said all the wrong things.

Yesterday, Carly Fiorina penned a piece for Time magazine. She wrote about her step-daughter, who died from addiction at the age of 34. She also wrote about what the government should do for those with mental health problems and addiction disorders, and how we need to reform the criminal justice system:

We must invest more in mental health and in the treatment of drug addiction. We shouldn’t be criminalizing addiction. If you’re criminalizing drug abuse, you’re not treating it. In New Hampshire alone, 85% of state prisoners have a substance abuse problem. These men and women need help. We need to reform the criminal justice system and make sure we’re putting the right people in prison. The federal prison population has nearly doubled in the last 20 years—and nearly half of the inmates in federal prison are in there for non-violent drug offenses.It’s important to keep violent criminals out of our communities—but it’s also true that prison is not always the right answer. Drug offenders who go into treatment—rather than through the normal criminal justice system—are about 25% less likely to be re-arrested in the two years after leaving the program.

I’m thrilled that she made these points. This is an astonishing change from 30 years ago and the disastrous policies of President Reagan, when prevention programs were based on “Just Say No” and funding for treatment programs were cut and the prison populations exploded due to draconian sentences for drug possessions. Now multiple Republican candidates are talking about the importance of drug treatment and sensible criminal justice reform, including the son of Ronald Reagan’s VP.

Today on The Medium, Jeb Bush wrote about his daughter’s addiction and recovery:

As a father, I have felt the heartbreak of drug abuse. My daughter Noelle suffered from addiction, and like many parents facing similar situations, her mom and I struggled to help. I have so many friends and know so many families who have faced this terrible challenge. Addiction crosses all barriers, all lines, all races and all incomes. It creates real hardship and heartbreak in families. And, it places substantial demands on government at every level. 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.

It’s very debilitating when you have a loved one who is struggling, and you can’t control it. You have to love them, but you also have to make it clear you cannot enable the behavior that gets them in trouble. Showing a lot of courage, Noelle graduated from drug court. Drug courts use a restorative solution model involving multi-disciplinary coordination, including the judiciary, the prosecution, mental health specialists, social services and treatment professionals. I was the proud dad that saw Noelle finish that. She’s drug-free now.

The New York Times reported on his post today and also wrote that Governor Bush would be appearing at a drug policy forum in New Hampshire later this afternoon and would talk about his plans to address mental health and addiction problems:

Mr. Bush’s plan to deal with the issue has four main components: preventing drug abuse and addiction, strengthening the criminal justice system, securing the southern border with Mexico to stop the flow of illegal drugs, and improving treatment and recovery programs.

Neither Mr. Bush, Ms. Fiorina, nor Mr. Christie have released detailed policy plans yet, but the fact that they are all talking about these issues is substantial forward progress.

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