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The personal politics of drug addiction

Candidates are taking a softer tone on drugs, sharing personal stories of loved ones who have struggled with addiction.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is speaking candidly about his daughter’s battle with drug addiction. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s emotional speech about drugs has gone viral. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina has spoken about burying her step-daughter as a result of her drug problem. Sen. Ted Cruz has described his parents’ past struggles with alcohol.

For many Republican candidates, the message is clear: Overreacting to illegal drug use isn’t the best answer, and it has a very human cost. It's a very different tone than the tough-on-crime rhetoric Americans heard from candidates decades ago. These days, candidates are taking a softer approach, sharing personal stories of friends and family members who have either succumbed to or struggled through their addiction.

It's a refreshing turn. But will it pay off politically?

The change in tone makes sense. There’s a growing consensus in America that the three-decade long War on Drugs was excessively punitive and expensive. But there’s also the element of race and class. No longer does drug abuse sound to the "us" of Republican politicians as an exclusive problem of poor and minority "thems." Indeed, as whites and the middle class are increasingly affected by heroin and prescription drug addiction, drug abuse is a problem that seems to be climbing the economic ladder and shifting to affect different demographics.

“For heroin and prescription drug abuse, there’s much more of a focus now on treatment and prevention — all of which is good, but can’t be separated out from how the problem is perceived. The racial perception of the problem very much influences the public policy discussions we are having,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project and an expert on race and the criminal justice system.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are 44 deaths related to prescription drug overdoses every day, with a 400% increase among white Americans since 1999. Whites have also seen a surge in heroin use in recent years. 

RELATED: Hillary Clinton calls for end to cocaine sentencing disparity

That may be why candidates, particularly Republicans, are voluntarily and easily talking about the issue in such stark, personal terms. Much like the shift in the public’s views about same-sex marriage and how new supporters point to someone, a friend or family member, who is gay as the reason for their changing attitude, a similar phenomenon seems to be taking place when it comes to drug policy.

In recent days, Bush has been more open with speaking about his daughter Noelle’s past battle with drug addiction, and how she was caught and jailed in 2002 using a fraudulent prescription to buy Xanax. At a meet and greet at Hollis Pharmacy and General Store in Hollis, New Hampshire on Wednesday, he said “I’ve suffered with this as a governor and as a dad.”

Bush also told MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt on Thursday that his daughter’s struggle was the hardest thing he’s ever gone through and that, because of that personal experience, he can relate to the millions of Americans dealing with the same issue — especially in New Hampshire, where a recent WMUR poll found voters believe drug abuse is the most important problem in the state, even more so than the economy, education and healthcare. "Your life experience shapes who you — how you lead, who you are. I can walk into a crowd, and if, if the subject comes up, which it does all the time here, about drug addiction ... I can look at people's faces and know whether they have gone through the struggle themselves or with a loved one." 

Bush’s remarks come the same week that a video of Christie speaking about drug addiction at a recent New Hampshire town hall has gone viral. The Republican, known for his rough and tough style, takes a softer and sympathetic tone, describing how a successful law school friend struggling with drug addiction was recently found dead in a motel with an empty bottle of Percocet and an empty quart of vodka.

“It can happen to anyone and so we need to start treating people in this country, not jailing them,” Christie said. “We need to give them the tools they need to recover because every life is previous. Every life is an individual gift from God. And we have to stop judging and start giving them the tools they need to get better.”

Fiorina similarly had a stand-out moment during September’s GOP debate when she described burying her step daughter Lori, a victim of drug addiction, in 2009. Fiorina did not go into detail about the death but has previously written about Lori’s struggles with alcohol, prescription pills and bulimia.

Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton is also weighing in on drug abuse, calling heroin and prescription opiate abuse a “quiet epidemic” back in September and proposing a $10 billion plan to help addicts and reduce incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders.

Whether or not the personal rhetoric resonates with voters is yet to be seen. But some are certainly hoping for a boost — especially Christie, who has been polling in the single digits.

His campaign has sent an email to supporters about the video, which has over five million views on Facebook, asking “Have you watched it?”

Christie attended a drug addiction, recovery and law enforcement roundtable in Somersworth, New Hampshire, Thursday evening, when he also referred to how he and his state have been affected by those suffering from drug addiction. He also took the opportunity to criticize President Barack Obama's decision not to federally prosecute those who use marijuana. 

Christie referred to the recent Republican debate held in Colorado, where recreational pot use is now legal. "They held a summit of teachers and principals in the public schools in Colorado, and they said the single biggest education challenge in schools right now is pot," he said, adding that students are bringing pot-laden cookies and gummies to school. As the event wrapped up, he vowed to keep pushing for drug treatment funding and making it available under insurance.  

Some think Christie’s new focus will pay off. Former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy — a Democrat who was once addicted to prescription opiate painkillers — told MSNBC his message will win over many of the 23 million Americans who are in recovery for drug and alcohol addiction. “They’re going to rush out, if they’re in a Republican primary, they’re going to vote for Chris Christie. This has a powerful political constituency that isn’t measured by any poll,” he said.

Others aren’t quite convinced. Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said that while the message may go over well in New Hampshire — a state Christie has been focusing on — it’s not an issue at the top of minds of Republican voters nationally. “It’s a great general election video, but I’m not sure it helps him right now with the Republican base nationally. But it does give him name recognition.”