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The politics of drugs
Analyst says election season tactics may stifle discourse

07/21/16
By Ryan Lessard news@hippopress.com



 A distant siren blares and an ambulance drives in slow motion in a dark, faded filter. “The heroin epidemic has devastated New Hampshire families,” says a sympathetic narrator. The scene changes to the Statehouse dome obscured by tree branches. “Yet,” it continues, “in New England, New Hampshire ranked dead last on spending on substance abuse programs in 2014.”

This is the start of a television campaign ad targeting Gov. Maggie Hassan for causing substance abuse program delays that “threatened families in need” because she vetoed the budget last year.
In response to the ad, which was created by a super PAC called One Nation — and has links to Karl Rove — to aid Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte in her reelection, various groups called on the PAC to pull the ad from the airwaves. 
This is an example of how the drug crisis is being discussed in state elections this year, which analysts say is more aggressive and less personal than when it was discussed by presidential candidates last year.
 
Drugs in review
The presidential primary season changed the conversation in a big way, according to Wayne Lesperance, political science professor at New England College.
“The current conversation of the opioid crisis is something that came to us really as a result of the first-in-the-nation presidential primary,” Lesperance said. “I don’t know that voters would have noticed it, would have heard about it, would be talking about it as much or that it would have assumed such a prominent role in the state elections had it not been for the national media attention — and state and regional media attention — that got focused on it during the presidential primary process.”
By contrast, he said, the 2014 elections virtually ignored the drug crisis altogether, even though the law enforcement and public health community was vocal about the overwhelming number of overdose deaths that year.
“I don’t think it registered on anybody’s radar [in 2014],” Lesperance said. “[It was] certainly nowhere near the prominence that [it has] right now.”
Generally, Lesperance said, it’s being brought up in two ways. Either a candidate will charge an opponent with a lack of leadership or they will talk about their plan for the issue.
“It’s a wedge point,” Lesperance said. “And then it’s an opportunity to talk about a plan that you may have for addressing the challenges of opiate addiction.”
But during the primary, candidates largely discussed the crisis in a sensitive way, with both Republicans and Democrats calling for more addiction treatment and sometimes offering a personal anecdote about a family member who suffered from addiction or died of an overdose. 
Lesperance said those anecdotes are ways for presidential candidates to humanize themselves to a new audience of voters, whereas local politicians have less need to do that.
“People have a sense of them, they’ve been around the political landscape, many of them have run for office before, held office before. You can’t say the name Chris Sununu, for example, and not have a sense of the family and all of that,” Lesperance said.
With the state elections this year, though, candidates are starting to use the issue as ammunition against opponents. Whether or not it’s resonating with voters or backfiring remains to be seen.
 
To politicize or not to politicize?
Meira Bernstein, a Hassan campaign spokesperson, said it’s “absolutely wrong” to politicize the drug crisis to attack candidates like Hassan and that the issue requires a united front.
“We need to be coming together and working with experts, first responders and providers on the front lines,” Bernstein said in an email.
According to an Ayotte spokesperson, Ayotte called for the ad to be taken down in a tweet, saying “No one should be playing politics with the heroin epidemic.”
When the anti-Hassan ad first came out, the language used by critics of the ad was emotional. According to statements shared by the Hassan campaign, the president of the state firefighters union called it “disgusting,” the Cheshire County Sheriff called it “insulting,” Senate Democratic Leader Jeff Woodburn called it “reprehensible” and U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said, “It’s outrageous for an out-of-state group to mislead voters and try to politicize an epidemic that is devastating so many Granite State families.”
Many of these folks may have been simply running to the defense of Hassan, but the seeming outrage over “politicizing” the drug crisis was a new phenomenon in the political arena, and similar charges have since been levied in other local races.
Executive Councilor Chris Sununu, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, stepped in a minefield when he said last month that no one has led the fight against the drug crisis at the state or local level. This drew the anger of his GOP opponents and Manchester Police Chief Nick Willard.
 
Policy vs. politics
But this kind of pushback is surprising to some political analysts like Dean Spiliotes, civic scholar at Southern New Hampshire University. 
“Any time there’s a response to a drug crisis by public officials, I think it’s fair to discuss the nature of the response, the objectives, whether or not there was adequate funding. I think all of those in an election season when people are running for office, it’s fair game,” Spiliotes said. “Every time you make decisions on public policy, those are political decisions.”
As of last October, residents polled by UNH said the most important issue facing the state is drug abuse. At the time, the plurality of respondents was 25 percent. That’s since grown, as of the last poll in April, to 44 percent. So it should be no surprise that local politicians will be talking about the issue and using it to score political points in competitive elections.
“It was interesting to me to see how quickly people used this idea of politicization as sort of a campaign tool, because for me, by definition, these kinds of public policy questions … should be weighed by voters,” Spiliotes said. 
There are maybe a few things being said on the campaign trail that point to differences in policy positions. Some candidates may emphasize treatment, prevention and recovery or they might frame the crisis as a public mental health issue. Others might take a more strong-on-crime tack, with an emphasis on law enforcement. While this is largely rare given the shifting attitudes about addiction, one example of this could be when gubernatorial candidate Jeanie Forrester, a state senator from Meredith, said she would support mandatory life sentences for dealers who sold opioids that resulted in an overdose death — something the attorney general is already trying to do — and would join a coalition of governors that want to send National Guardsmen to the Texas-Mexico border in attempt to cut off the illicit drug supply. She would also establish a statewide tip line allowing people to turn in suspected dealers in exchange for a $5,000 reward if the tip leads to an arrest and conviction.
Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas, in his gubernatorial plan to tackle the drug crisis, said he would push for higher bails for dealers so they don’t end up back on the streets right after getting arrested. And he would support charging a fentanyl dealer with attempted murder in addition to murder charges in overdose death cases.
Still, both Forrester and Gatsas, Republicans, emphasize treatment, prevention and recovery. Gatsas wants to create financial incentives to educate more counselors and treatment providers and he wants to replicate the Safe Stations program — where addicts can present at Manchester fire stations and get directed to treatment and recovery services — in other parts of the state. Forrester, the top senate budget writer last session, wants to streamline the state budget to find more dollars for treatment beds and wants to make sure every penny is being spent efficiently by auditing the health department.
The plans by Forrester and Gatsas provide a level of detail few candidates for governor or Congress have gotten into. Most candidates only say the drug crisis is an important issue and they will work to solve it, with very few details.
“There’s not a lot of specifics. It’s usually how do you pay for whatever solution is being suggested to address the challenge,” Lesperance said. “I think there is a bit of a nuanced conversation out there but it’s very muted. It’s not happening nearly enough.”
While Gatsas and Forrester seem to agree with Democrats like Hassan’s supporters that it’s a bad idea to use the handling of the drug epidemic to criticize, their plans weren’t devoid of politics either. The timing of their release seemed more than coincidental, as Forrester trumped Gatsas by releasing her plan the day before Gatsas had planned to unveil his last month.
For candidates like Hassan, the drug crisis has been a resume booster, as she points to the many measures she signed into law recently that increased access to Narcan, raised penalties for fentanyl dealing, and funded treatment programs, enhanced law enforcement operations and drug courts designed to divert addicts from the revolving door of prison.
That’s also true for Forrester, who was the prime sponsor of the bill that allocated $1.5 million for “Granite Hammer” police operation grants to target dealers, and Gatsas, who expedited the rollout of Safe Stations. Sununu takes credit for being the first to call for Hassan’s first “drug czar,” Jack Wozmak, to resign after he was criticized for not meeting with local leaders and police. 
People are not only concerned with the issue, they’re invested, sometimes emotionally, and that can lead to an unpredictable and vitriolic environment.
“As public policy issues go, it’s a very potent issue. It has life and death ramifications for families and huge impacts on the communities that are afflicted,” Spiliotes said. “Maybe what [critics] really mean is, ‘Is it being handled fairly, respectfully in a way that isn’t necessarily exploitative of human emotions?’”
But there is room for criticism, he said, when a sensitive topic is being tastelessly exploited or used to overtly manipulate people’s feelings. Spiliotes said super PAC ads are notorious for being tone deaf for local audiences.
“My general criticism of super PAC ads as a class of advertisement is they’re often put together and run by groups that maybe don’t have the most nuanced understanding of politics in the state,” Spiliotes said.
But keeping the drug crisis off the table as a topic for campaigns to discuss, even as a criticism or point of difference, might be a bad idea, according to Spiliotes. 
“Where do you go from there? It basically shuts down discussion,” Spiliotes said.
For Lesperance, the best way forward is to focus on the specific plans.
“I think what we ought to be asking all of them for is a detailed approach. ‘What are you going to do?’” he said. 





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