Manchester, NH, Dec. 20 – The third Democratic presidential debate touched on a topic often overlooked among the myriad of issues candidates face at debates – drug addiction, in particular the growing heroin epidemic in New Hampshire and across the country.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders called the epidemic a “tragedy all over the country,” and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said, “it’s a huge public health challenge.”
Sanders pointed out that we “need to understand that addiction is a disease, not a criminal activity.”
The three Democratic candidates all agreed that the issue is a health issue for which people need more help and called for a reevaluation of how law enforcement and health professionals deal with addicts.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the overall costs of substance abuse in the United States exceed an estimated $600 billion per year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heroin-related overdose deaths nearly quadrupled from 2002 to 2013.
The American Disabilities Act protects employees who are in or have completed rehab for addiction and abuse, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Sanders said addressing this issue would mean “radically changing the way we deal with mental health and addiction issues.”
Sanders, O’Malley, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton all called on doctors and medical professionals to reign in prescribing opiates.
“We cannot have this huge number of opiates throughout this country, where young people are taking them, getting hooked, and then going to heroin,” Sanders said.
Clinton added that law enforcement needed to change, including carrying Naloxone, a drug used to combat overdoses. “We need more programs and facilities, so when somebody is ready to get help, there’s a place for them to go.”
O’Malley said, “We need to invest in local partnerships, and the best place to intervene, the best indicator of when a person is actually on the verge of killing themselves because of an addiction, is at the hospital.”
The candidates have taken varying positions on combating drug addiction. Both Clinton and O’Malley want to increase funding to substance abuse programs and have pushed for criminal justice reform. Clinton previously outlined her plan to combat addiction in a New Hampshire Union-Leader op-ed in September. O’Malley outlined his plan in October.
Sanders does not have a paper position, but has advocated for expanding health care, including lowering the price of Naxolone, and removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act. He said during the debate that the country needs to “rethink the so-called war on drugs.”