State Senator Peter Harckham on His Battle With Addiction

State Senator Peter Harckham is a freshman Democratic lawmaker who, during a news conference in January, unexpectedly admitted that he had battled with addiction. Harckham says he hit rock bottom in the 1980s, but he sought treatment and now, after more than 30 years sober, is leading a bipartisan task force combating the worsening opioid crisis in New York. He joins Michel to discuss this work.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: And our next guest is a freshman Democratic lawmaker who, during a news conference in January, unexpectedly admitted that he battled with addiction. State Senator Peter Harckham hit rock bottom in the 1980s. But he sought treatment. And now, after more than 30 years sober, is leading a bipartisan task force combating the worsening opioid crisis in New York. And he tells our Michel Martin that he believes America has turned a major health issue into a crime.


MICHEL MARTIN: You made quite an impression in your press conference at the capitol in Albany. What made you decide to go public with your own personal story?

SEN. PETER HARCKHAM (D-NY): Well, I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I just toured the state with our Task Force on Opioids, Addiction, Overdose Prevention with my colleagues Senator Carlucci, Senator Rivera. And we wanted to find out what the gaps in the system were. And the number one barrier that we are still facing is stigma. And so, if I was going to lead the charge on stigma, it was not fair of me to live with my own anonymity. So, that’s why I told my story.

MARTIN: How old were you when you started drinking?

HARCKHAM: Oh, probably 14, 15.

MARTIN: Fourteen?


MARTIN: How did that start? I mean, did you bust into your parents’ liquor cabinet or something?

HARCKHAM: Yes. Yes. Yes, that’s the way it started.

MARTIN: And did anybody notice?

HARCKHAM: No, not — it wasn’t until college that it was really becoming apparent to folks that I might have an issue. And then, in my early 20s, it was very apparent to people who knew me, to my family. So, I eventually was able to get treatment when I was 27. And so it’s — it’s been a while. But, you know, the pernicious thing about this disease is, when you self- medicate, you build a tolerance and you need more. And then you build a tolerance for that, and it stops working. And that’s what leads to stronger substances.

MARTIN: I understand that it’s been three decades since you, as you said, became sober. But I still think it would be helpful for people to know that a guy like you in a suit, with the badge and the responsibility, lived that. How did it work in your life? Did you, like, go to school during the week and do all the things, and then on the weekends you would get drunk? Or like how — I’m just — how is it that people didn’t notice?

HARCKHAM: I think because people were so busy with their own lives. And when I was in high school, I still managed to hold things together. When I was in college, I was not a good student. And I was not — I didn’t have my priorities right. And that’s when I — that’s when my drinking really took off at a heavy pace. And then I came back to New York, got involved in the advertising business. And that’s when my downward spiral really started in my 20s.

MARTIN: And why was that? Because people drink a lot for the business, and it was easy to hide, or what — why — or you were under so much pressure that you were–


HARCKHAM: No, it wasn’t pressure. It was, that’s what I needed to do. That’s physically what I needed to do to get by during the day. And it got to the point where, when I wanted to stop, I couldn’t stop. And so that last year was terrifying, because I was in such pain. Self-medication wasn’t working anymore. I had contemplated suicide. And I, fortunately, had a voice inside my head that said, you don’t have to live this way anymore. And I picked up the phone and called somebody. And the next day, I was on a train to Pennsylvania to go for treatment.

MARTIN: Was it just alcohol at that point, or had you ever brought other stuff into the mix?

HARCKHAM: No, it was everything. It was everything. And–


MARTIN: Yes. Were you ever scared? Like, were you buying stuff off the black market or–


HARCKHAM: Well, yes. That’s the only — that was the only way. This was New York City in the 1980s, so it was a wild place in many ways.

MARTIN: A lot of people who had that experience, you know, their wakeup call came because they got beat up or something like in the middle of a drug deal or something like that. That never happened to you?

HARCKHAM: No. There were unpleasant experiences along the way. But — and everyone has different sets of those. But, you know, it could be — what’s relatable to everybody is the feelings and the despair and the disconnection from the human race and from other people. You know, it’s a disease of isolation. And so, whether–

MARTIN: Well, talk about that for a second. What do you mean by that, it’s a disease of isolation?

HARCKHAM: Well, it’s the inability to connect with people you love. It’s the inability to connect with people in your life on an emotional level. You know, it’s the old saying, you could be in Madison Square Garden and feel all alone. And those are the kind of things,. Whether it’s somebody who drinks white wine after they put their kids to bed, or somebody who is living on a subway grate, it’s the similarity of the feelings that come about and the need to medicate those.

MARTIN: You have obviously had a distinguished career. And you have got elected. You have built a successful business, and you have been a successful professional, and then you got yourself elected to office, and now you’re doing your thing. You could have kind of kept it secret. You could have. You could have just said, well, that part of my life is over, that door is closed, I’m just going to kind of do my thing. Did you ever feel that way?

HARCKHAM: I felt, when I was appointed to chair the Committee on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, that, for me, this was not just another committee assignment. It was a calling. And it happened for a reason. And I had a lot of assistance along the way. I had a lot of privilege, in the sense that I had insurance, I had access to employment, I had access to transportation, I had access to medication, I had access to after-care. A lot of those supports, a lot of people don’t have to this day. And so it’s up to me, and people like me, to raise our voice. And this was my one opportunity. And there — it’s not just me. There are other colleagues in the Senate, in the Assembly, who are dedicated to this issue, to increasing funding, to passing laws that break the barriers, because, when 3,700 people in one year dying in New York, that’s more than died on 9/11. And as horrible a tragedy as that was, it mobilized us as a nation, it mobilized us as a state. But when 3,700 people die because of an opioid overdose, we don’t mobilize that way because of the stigma. They’re a silent voice. Who wants a harm-reduction program in their neighborhood? Who wants sober housing in their neighborhood? Who wants a rehab in their neighborhood? Do you want your tax dollars to go to a beautiful new park, or do we want to increase the salaries of the people who are providing treatment, so we can attract and recruit and retain qualified, competent people?

MARTIN: You ever think about the people who are locked up and think, gee, you know, what’s the difference between them and me?

HARCKHAM: I think about them all the time. And there is no difference between them and me. And, unfortunately, because of the color of my skin, that may have played a part in that. But we have criminalized a health issue. You know, alcoholism, addiction, substance use disorder, it’s a disease. And we have locked up thousands and thousands and thousands of people for having a disease. And that’s part of the stigma, that it’s illegal, it’s a crime. But, you know, we don’t lock diabetics up when a diabetic needs their medicine. So, we have got to change the narrative that this is — we’re not going to arrest our way out of this problem. We’re not going to demonize our way out of this problem. This is a health issue. And we need to mobilize our public health apparatus to address it as such.

MARTIN: Do you think that part of the reason there has not been this perspective that it’s a public health crisis is that a lot of people who have been caught up in the criminal justice aspect of it are not the same color as you? Do you think that’s part of it?

HARCKHAM: I think it is. And, in fact, my colleagues who represent urban districts colleagues bristle, and rightfully so, because this issue didn’t necessarily get the attention it should have until white people in the suburbs started dying. And black and brown folks were dying at a high rate for a long time in a lot of neighborhoods, and they weren’t getting the resources they needed to address it then.

MARTIN: Can I ask you this, because you’re obviously a very well-educated man? Where were you when all that was going on? I mean, where were you when the war on drugs was locking up all these kids in these neighborhoods for doing the same stuff that you were doing? But where — did it ever occur to you then to get involved and to go public?

HARCKHAM: You know what? I used to volunteer in a prison in Northern Westchester Women’s Prison, did a substance abuse group then. But I was not as educated to these issues then. I was not as socially aware back then. I started to become aware when I was a county legislator in Westchester and spent a fair amount of time working in the county correctional facility and seeing and hearing the stories of how many people were there because of untreated mental illness and substance use disorder. And, so, that’s when I started to become educated, and then — and then to really, really hear the impacts — you know, really my education furthered when I became a senator.

MARTIN: What’s it been like for you at the legislature since you went public with your own life? I know you said that your own history, I know that you said that you have never hidden it, and the people closest to you certainly knew about it. But, I mean, goodness gracious, your story in “The New York Times,” it went viral. What’s that — what’s it been like for you?

HARCKHAM: Just another day at the office.

MARTIN: Really?


MARTIN: OK, because that just happens all the time. You become a national figure overnight. Sure.


HARCKHAM: No. I mean, people said, nice job, and then we’re back to work on the budget, you know, because I told the story not for it to be about me.

MARTIN: I see.

HARCKHAM: I want to focus attention on the issue. And if telling my story helps to begin the dialogue and breaking down the stigma, was happy to do it. But there’s still a lot of hard work to be done. That was not the end of anything. That was — if anything, that was just a conversation-opener about the scope and the magnitude of the problem.

MARTIN: What is it that you most want people to understand that you think a lot of people don’t?

HARCKHAM: I think, first and foremost, that this is a public health issue, that we’re talking about a disease. We’re not talking about a moral failing. We’re not talking about a crime. We’re talking about a disease. And so, A, it’s OK for people to ask for help. It’s OK for families to reach out to ask for help. And it’s something that we need to devote a lot more resources to. You know, we see harm reduction works. We dedicate precious few resources to needle exchange. We don’t have safe consumption centers in the United States. We visited one in Toronto. All across Canada, they have them. They have had no fatalities. So our first goal has got to be, if we’re talking about people being sick, then let’s save them. Let’s meet them where they are. So, the first thing is keep people alive, because not everybody is ready for treatment. So, let’s meet people where they are. Let’s keep them alive, and then you have a chance to slowly bring them in. And then there are other people who are ready for treatment we have to get a bed to immediately. And then there are other people who are at risk. They may be abstinent for a while, but if they’re coming out of prison, they still have the disease, they still have the co-occurring malady that caused them to self-medicate in the first place. They pick up to use the same amount, but their tolerance is gone. So, that’s one of the largest groups of people who die of overdose are people coming out of the correctional facility.

MARTIN: You know, it’s interesting. When you raise these issues, in a lot of communities, I mean, people have lost their careers over this. The former Mayor of Baltimore Kurt Schmoke, he’s now a very distinguished university head. He’s certainly gone on to contribute in a number of other ways. His political career was basically ended because he advocated decriminalizing marijuana like 20-some years ago. I mean, even more recently, the former attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions, who was President Trump’s first attorney general, with whom he obviously had a falling out, there were people in the department who talked about this, and they were laughed out of the room. They were ridiculed out of the room.


MARTIN: And so I’m just wondering, like, what makes you think that people are actually willing to entertain these ideas?

HARCKHAM: I’m at the point in my life where I want to do the right thing, not necessarily the electable thing. In my district, it probably would have been much safer not to support legalizing marijuana in New York state. And after a year and some good changes that Senator Krueger made to her bill to address some of the issues raised by my constituents, I endorsed her proposal. It would have been a lot safer for me not to make that statement. It would have been safer for me not to vote for driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. I can point to a lot of votes that we have done in the last year, and it would have been a lot safer for me not to, if I was looking at my next election. But, you know, my focus is to do the right thing today.

MARTIN: There’s been a debate, decriminalization vs. legalization. Some people think that decriminalizing marijuana use is a good middle ground between people who are afraid that that which you permit, you promote, right? And so some people still see marijuana as a gateway to other things and they say, why not decriminalize it, but don’t legalize it, because thereby you’re not really giving society’s imprimatur to it? What about that argument?

HARCKHAM: And that’s — I hear that a lot, is that legalizing is de facto promotion. And we’re not promoting, because the marketplace has spoken. There are adults widely using marijuana. So why don’t we tax this, regulate the product, and put the money to a social good? And in the Senate bill, 25 percent of the money from the tax revenue goes to treatment, prevention, and education, which is desperately needed infusion of cash into the community mental health system, substance use disorder and harm-reduction systems. So why don’t we put that money to a social good? People are using the product anyhow. But, certainly, let’s regulate it and take all the impurities out of it, so we’re protecting health to that degree. But, quite honestly, there’s not a high school in New York state where you can’t buy marijuana. And so we’re not promoting marijuana. Marijuana is not a gateway drug. The science is clear on that. But the marketplace has spoken, so let’s tax it.

MARTIN: Governor Cuomo has said he wants this to be the year that marijuana is legalized in New York state? Do you think that that’s going to happen? And what makes you think, whatever it is your opinion is–


HARCKHAM: I don’t know. It’s an election year, and so everybody is going to take a different approach on this. Obviously, there are a number of people who are supporting it. I am in support of the Senate bill, which is slightly different version than the governor’s bill. So it really comes down to two factors? One, can we reconcile the differences with the Senate bill with the governor’s bill, and, also, where do people stand politically? This is an election year. But, you know, after hearing and documenting the gaps in the system we have, you know, I can’t walk away from a potential revenue source for the treatment and community and mental health networks.

MARTIN: Senator Peter Harckham, thank you so much for talking to us.

HARCKHAM: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

About This Episode EXPAND

Greek State Minister Giorgos Gerapetritis discusses the role of Greek forces at the border between Syria and Turkey. Vali Nasr and Susan Glasser explain what the world can expect following negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban. New York state senator Peter Harckham opens up about his battle with addiction and how it influences his work combating the opioid crisis.