Presidential Candidates Support an End to Addiction Stigma

(© Alan Cleaver flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/alancleaver/4104954991)
(© Alan Cleaver flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/alancleaver/4104954991)

Something remarkable is occurring in the way politicians are speaking about addiction (I’ve written about this previously). The discussion has shifted to focus on addiction as a disease and addicts as human beings requiring treatment, opposed to addicts as criminals requiring punishment or incarceration. Importantly, this shift away from the “war on drugs” rhetoric reaches across the political spectrum.

During the Democratic presidential debate held in December, Bernie Sanders called addiction “a disease and not a criminal activity” while Hilary Clinton and Martin O’Malley expressed similar sentiments.

New Hampshire, a state that has been particularly hard hit by the opioid epidemic sweeping the nation, recently held an Addiction Policy Forum at Southern New Hampshire University. Several GOP candidates attended the forum, including Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, and John Kasich. The candidates spoke personally about addiction, humanized addicts, and referred to addiction as a disease. Particularly moving was Carly Fiorina’s tragic story regarding her step-daughter’s struggle with addiction.

Despite these encouraging remarks, no candidate at the forum issued a call to increase accessibility to medication-assisted treatment of addiction.

NPR’s report on the forum offers an important analysis that I had not previously considered. One reason why the attitude in addiction is changing may be that the current opioid epidemic effects affects nearly every strata of society, including every race, whereas other drug epidemics in the past (such as the crack cocaine epidemic of the 80s and 90s) primarily affected only minority communities. NPR reports that some people refer to this as “the gentrification of the drug crisis.”

Even GOP candidate John Kasich of Ohio said, “This disease knows no bounds, knows no income, knows no neighborhood, it’s everywhere. And sometimes I wonder how African-Americans must have felt when drugs were awash in their community and nobody watched. Now it’s in our communities, and now all of a sudden we’ve got forums, and God bless us, but think about the struggles that other people had.”

A more political spin on the recent trend posted on the Hill blog discusses the rise of the “recovery voter”, an increasingly vocal group of people that place addiction as their number one issue. Clearly the presidential candidates are responding to the call for increasing governmental action on addiction.

I am cautiously optimistic about these positive trends but will reserve judgment until either Democratic or Republican candidates outline specific policy details.