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The easy availability of cheap heroin and other opiates has exploded in New Hampshire, where more than 300 people died of drug overdose deaths in 2015. The crisis has prompted state leaders to offer plans on how to improve addiction services, while presidential candidates, campaigning to win the first-in-the-nation primary, have also weighed in. Judy Woodruff reports.
But, first, say New Hampshire, and most people in the political world think first-in-the-nation primary, coming up February 9.
But, these days, there's another, more disturbing distinction for the Granite State, the expectation that last year's fatal drug overdoses will hit a record 400 deaths.
Today, presidential candidates and state political leaders gathered for a forum to tackle addiction and the growing heroin crisis.
I traveled to New Hampshire last month to get a firsthand look at the epidemic and its repercussions.
Like the rest of the country, New Hampshire has long grappled with its share of drug abuse. But, in the past few years, the easy availability of cheap heroin and fentanyl, another opiate, has exploded into a crisis that leaders in both parties say needs urgent attention.
GOV. MAGGIE HASSAN, D-N.H.:
The opioid epidemic is really our most pressing public health and public safety issue right now.
DONNA SYTEK, Former New Hampshire House Speaker:
Drug abuse has always been a challenge for New Hampshire, but, with the opioid crisis, it has reached epic proportions.
Democrats like Governor Maggie Hassan and Republicans like the former Speaker of the State Assembly Donna Sytek agree the state was slow to recognize what was happening in front of everyone's eyes.
But there's no mistaking it here at HOPE for New Hampshire, where the holidays mean no slowdown in people needing help on their road to recovery.
HOLLY CEKALA, Director of Recovery Supports, Hope for NH: Some people are staying busy, connecting with their peers, staying in recovery.
The center provides nonclinical support for men and women coping with an alcohol or drug addiction that in many cases started with a painkiller prescribed by a physician.
You can be tall, short, white, black. You could speak English, you could not. You could be a CEO or you could be a homeless vet. And it really just doesn't discriminate.
Director of recovery supports, Holly Cekala, herself in long-term recovery, told us the center was created in response to a growing need in New Hampshire's largest city, Manchester.
Even if I opened up six more treatment centers here, you're still going to fill them. And you're still going to have a rotation, unless we protect our investment in treatment.
The statistics are staggering. In 2013, New Hampshire saw 192 drug overdose deaths. That number shot up to 326 in 2014. As of mid-December, 342 people died this past year. And the fatalities are just the tip of the iceberg.
LINDA SAUNDERS PAQUETTE, Executive Director, New Futures:
We have a population in New Hampshire of about 1.3 million people. And approximately 100,000 folks are in need of substance use treatment.
Linda Saunders Paquette is the executive director of New Futures, a group that advocates for drug and alcohol abuse prevention and reduction.
LINDA SAUNDERS PAQUETTE:
With those high rates of people with substance use disorder, we are also second to last in the country when it comes to somebody in need of treatment being able to access
Access is an issue state Representative Gladys Johnsen saw firsthand almost a decade ago.
GLADYS JOHNSEN, (D) New Hampshire State Representative: It's really a disease. And I had not owned that until I witnessed it.
Years before she became a state legislator, the father of Johnsen's grandson fatally overdosed in their home.
My daughter Jorinda comes running upstairs at 5:15. "I can't wake Jesse. I can't wake Jesse."
And we, of course, rushed down there. And Jesse was gone. And we — immediately, my husband did the chest compressions, and I tried breathing in his mouth. And I knew in my heart he was gone. And so, you know, it has taken me a long time. And he wasn't — they weren't married, but he was one of mine.
Johnsen says just weeks before Jesse's death, he had tried to get help for his addiction.
It still hurts my soul. I watched him call place after place after place after place, saying: "I really need help. Can you find me a place?" And he could not find a place because he didn't have any money.
Bryan Patriquin, an intern at HOPE for New Hampshire, told us that although he has gotten help throughout his four years of recovery, stories like Jesse's are all too common.
BRYAN PATRIQUIN, Hope for NH: If we were to walk down the streets of Manchester, it would be a matter of time before we saw a drug deal happen. But if you call a treatment center right now, you're going to get a waiting list for four to six weeks, on average.
The drug crisis here is not just happening behind closed doors. Among the cans and bottles littering the state's parks and little league fields, authorities have found lots of drug paraphernalia, including hundreds of needles.
Drug abuse is such a problem, that Manchester's mayor, Ted Gatsas, says he has regular visits from parents of young people who've overdosed on opioids like heroin and fentanyl.
MAYOR TED GATSAS, Manchester, New Hampshire:
We need to do something about it. If we don't, we're not going to have to worry about building more beds to try and treat people. We're going to have to start building more coffins.
Governor Maggie Hassan has presented her own set of proposals to combat the opioid crisis. It seems likely the legislature will adopt at least some of them.
GOV. MAGGIE HASSAN:
The most important thing we know we need to do is increase access to treatment in New Hampshire, and that really boils down to making sure we reauthorize our Medicaid expansion program, because, for the first time, under Medicaid expansion, the Medicaid program covers treatment and behavioral health issues.
Realizing drug abuse has become an issue important to New Hampshire, the presidential hopefuls have also responded.
JEB BUSH, Republican Presidential Candidate:
Look, I have some personal experience with this just as a dad. It's the most heartbreaking thing in the world to have to go through.
GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE, Republican Presidential Candidate:
My friend, they found him dead in a motel room by himself with an empty bottle of Percocet and an empty quart of vodka. He was 52 years old. My friend had every success in the world, as we define it, and then, because of his addiction, he had nothing.
State Representative Johnsen raised the drug crisis at a Clinton campaign event.
We are grandparents raising our 10-year-old grandson, because his father, we lost him to an overdose.
HILLARY CLINTON, Democratic Presidential Candidate:
Well, I have to say, Gladys, that you're the third grandmother that I have personally met in New Hampshire in the last several months who is raising a grandchild because of drugs.
Donna Sytek, who recently endorsed New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, says the debate now lies in how to solve the problem.
When budgets get tight, that's one area where there are cutbacks. And so it has been a problem. There hasn't been a lot of money. It's not surprising that New Hampshire doesn't spend a lot on that. We don't spend a lot on a lot of other programs, because we believe in small government.
This is, after all, the state with the motto "Live Free or Die."
Even so, Republican Mayor Gatsas is in favor of spending more on law enforcement to tackle the crisis.
We need to start from the top, and preventing folks from getting addicted by preventing the cross-line of heroin coming across into this state.
Governor Hassan, who is backing Hillary Clinton for president, argues the state investment in treatment is not only the right thing to do for addicts, but also in the best interest of the business community.
This has got a huge economic impact. We have a 3.2 percent unemployment rate in New Hampshire. It's one of the lowest in the country. If we can't find a work force that isn't struggling with an addiction problem, that has a direct economic impact on us.
Advocates say that understanding addiction and eliminating its stigma should go hand in hand with treatment.
In the past, a person who had an addiction was thought to have a moral failing. But thanks to science, we now know that addiction is a chronic relapsing brain disease.
And that's exactly what HOPE for New Hampshire stresses to politicians and to those struggling with addiction.
At 21 years-old, I was well over 500 pounds. I was unhealthy and a daily substance user. I found this group of people who I still — still see today — I'm sorry — it's like really kind of an emotional thing. It's an emotional thing for me. And they stuck behind me and they supported me.
I believe that if I had a place like this to come to when I was struggling with my addiction, it would have taken me much less time to put my life back together. That's why I do what I do.
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Broadcast journalist Judy Woodruff is the anchor and managing editor of the PBS NewsHour. She has covered politics and other news for five decades at NBC, CNN and PBS.
Rachel Wellford is a general assignment producer for PBS NewsHour.
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