On The Political Front: Drug Epidemic Front And Center In N.H. Politics

May 11, 2015

On The Political Front is our weekly conversation with NHPR's Senior Political Reporter Josh Rogers. 

This week, a look at the impact of New Hampshire's drug epidemic on state and presidential politics.

A bill to make Narcan, an opioid antagonist that can reverse overdoses, available via prescription is headed for the governor's desk. The drug epidemic has become a theme on the presidential campaign trail. Is New Hampshire’s opioid problem the biggest public policy issue in the state right now?

You could make that case. More than 300 people died from drug overdoses in New Hampshire the last year – largely heroin and fentanyl. And the Narcan bill, which would allow doctors to prescribe it to individuals with drug issues and also to their family members, passed the Senate on a voice vote, which is pretty remarkable. The governor has yet to indicate whether she’ll sign it, but it seems likely she will, given that she backed a change to put Narcan in the hands of more first responders – who have apparently used it more than 3,000 times.

Now when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie campaigned here late last week, he visited a drug treatment facility and said drugs ought to be a big issue in the presidential race.

He did, and during her first trip to New Hampshire as a candidate, Democrat Hillary Clinton said much the same thing, though she couched it in the broader terms of mental health. Whether other presidential candidates echo such comments remains to be seen, but public officials in New Hampshire are all talking about it. Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas was at the Christie event. 

Chris Christie in Manchester
Credit josh rogers/nhpr

  He spoke approvingly of policies announced last week in Gloucester, Mass., where starting next month, if addicts turn themselves in to police, even with drugs in hand, instead of arrest, they would be steered toward treatment. Gatsas said he hopes Manchester can also pioneer new approaches to deal with narcotics use and addiction. A key part of that, others at this meeting suggested, would be for people in recovery to speak out to reduce the stigma associated with addiction.

Does any of this suggest the debate over drug treatment funding in the state budget will resolve itself easily?

Money is tight, and there are plenty of competing priorities. The House trimmed $6 million from what the governor proposed to boost treatment. The House also declined to extend Medicaid expansion, which includes substance abuse coverage for participants. These moves were criticized by plenty from the moment they were made, but the push is really on now. And the statistics are pretty rough. According to the head of the governor’s commission on prevention, treatment and recovery, right now New Hampshire has the country’s highest per-capita rate of addiction and the second-lowest treatment capacity. Only Texas is worse, apparently.

Now as the state debates drug treatment, there are also bills pending concerning marijuana.

True. One would add qualifying conditions to the state’s medical marijuana law: epilepsy, lupus, Parkinson’s disease and dementia associated with Alzheimer’s disease. The Senate will vote on that this week. The medical community has been quiet on this, as has Gov. Hassan, but the bill’s sponsors are people who were involved in getting our current – yet to be implemented -- law on the books. The other bill, which is more interesting politically, is the bill to decriminalize up to a half ounce of marijuana, making it a violation and a fine, rather than a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail. New Hampshire is the only New England state not to have decriminalized small amounts  of pot. But that is not for lack of trying by the New Hampshire House. This bill passed the House, as similar bills have before, but this time with  around 70 percent support.

Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

But what about the Senate and the governor?

Well, we’ll see. The governor has said she’ll review any bill passed, and has made clear she’s willing to consider something that might give a first-time offender some ability to avoid a criminal record. Whether a straight decriminalization bill can make it through the Senate isn’t clear. 

  State Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley is working to reach some sort of deal, but everyone close to this debate says it will probably boil down to what the governor is comfortable with. Recall that Gov. Hassan pretty much made lawmakers redraft, and tighten medical marijuana before we became the last state in the region to go there. If decriminalization is to go forward, we are likely to see something similar, a policy that can be described and defended politically as the most stringent law of its type. We’ll see.