LACONIA, New Hampshire — Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton said on Thursday that she never expected to be talking about heroin on the campaign trail but, time and again, supporters have approached her about what she described as a "quiet epidemic" and asked what she would do to remedy it.
The level of public concern spurred her to hold a community forum Thursday here on substance abuse — a topic that has taken center stage at nearly every event in New Hampshire in recent months. Clinton has held several events on opiate addiction in this state and has raised it as a key policy issue in many more.
Substance abuse also took a turn in the spotlight during Wednesday night's GOP debate, when the 11 leading Republican candidates were asked about the legalization of marijuana. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush admitted openly to smoking weed when he was younger, adding on an apology to his mother. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina offered her heart-wrenching experience of losing a child to drug addiction.
"We need to tell young people the truth," Fiorina said. "Drug addiction is an epidemic, and it is taking too many of our young people. I know this sadly from personal experience."
Clinton reiterated the seriousness of the problem on Thursday. “This is a disease, this is a chronic condition that has to be interrupted and treated and prevented, if possible,” she said. The Democratic front-runner’s proposal to fight drug and alcohol addiction would cost $10 billion over 10 years, with a focus on federal-state partnerships.
Though Clinton stressed that “this problem touches everybody,” she added that special attention must be paid to veterans who suffer from addiction.
In a rare move on the campaign trail for Clinton, she didn’t speak much and instead left it to the panelists and audience members to share personal stories about addiction, recovery and loss. One mother, who choked back tears as she spoke, recounted the day her son died of a heroin overdose. “A knock on the door very early on a Friday morning and we knew exactly what it was,” she said.
“Although he failed to see that he had potential, I do not. And I won’t forget that he had potential,” she added, before telling parents in the audience, “If you still have your child, it’s not hopeless yet.”
Another mother broke down telling Clinton about her son, who had mental health problems and “took his own life.” She told Clinton of her frustration over not being able to get him into a good treatment program and that the stigma of mental health remains so prevalent.
“We shouldn’t be ashamed. It’s no different than having cancer,” she said.
Panelist Jane Sparks told her own poignant story about addiction. “What recovery has done for me is it’s given me a whole new life. It’s given me a totally different way to look at things,” she said.
And one man in the audience simply told Clinton that he didn’t "want to go to any more funerals.”
The problem extends well beyond New Hampshire, Clinton said. “In Iowa, from Davenport to Council Bluffs, people talked about meth and prescription drugs. In South Carolina, a lawyer spoke movingly about the holes in the community left by generations of African-American men imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses, rather than getting the treatment they needed,” Clinton wrote in an opinion piece earlier this month.
On Thursday, Clinton vowed to work with the community to reach solutions on substance abuse and warned solemnly that, if nothing is done, “it's only going to get worse, the numbers are only going to get higher, the heartbreak, the tragedies are only going to increase.”