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Sen. Morse: Task Force Allows For Accelerated Response To N.H.'s Drug Crisis

New Hampshire Senator Chuck Morse
Allegra Boverman

Lawmakers will gather at the State House in Concord Wednesday for a special session devoted solely to tackling the issue of substance abuse.

The state saw a record number of drug overdoses last year – more than 300 – and opioid, heroin, and prescription drug abuse continues to plague communities across the Granite State.

To talk about the special session, Senate President Chuck Morse of Salem joined NHPR's Morning Edition.

Sen. Morse, we just saw a rather contentious and lengthy budget standoff between Republican leaders, including yourself, and Gov. Maggie Hassan. Can lawmakers suddenly set aside their differences to address this crisis?

Of course, I think they already have. I think this process is noting that we have agreement on how to get it done. We just have to go back and put the details in.

Lawmakers are expected to create a task force charged with reviewing new legislation, but as you know this has been a problem in the state for some time now.

Communities are looking to the state for answers, so why not take up legislation today that’s known to have broad bipartisan support?

Well, I think we are in some sense. I think this process is much quicker than the legislative process. The Senators have already filed all the legislation that we believe is going to come up during this task force. And I believe there’s a piece in the House that the Senate is interested in passing. That process I think will get amended as we go through this month with the task force. They’ve certainly set up an accelerated process to do that.

The goal of the task force is to draft legislation that could reach the governor’s desk as early as January. What are some specific areas you want to see addressed?

I think in general we have agreement with the governor on six or seven issues that we put in a bill that Sen. Bradley has that we’re just seeing what the task force wants to do to amend some of the language in fentanyl rises right to the top on that, making sure that we’re prosecuting it right.

There are several other pieces like drug courts that we’d like to fast track, but there needs to be agreement on how we’re going to do that. I do think that’s another piece though that could be on the governor’s desk by January.

Beyond some of the specifics, you’re talking about stiffer penalties involving fentanyl, which right now is classified differently than heroin, is that correct?

Yes. Basically, you’re looking at a seven-year penalty compared to I believe a 30-year penalty.

Obviously, some of the proposed solutions will require more funding – more money for drug courts, more money for drug prevention and treatment programs.

Gov. Hassan has proposed $11 million in new spending to help pay for these types of initiatives. Is that a figure you’re comfortable with?

We still haven’t closed out the books for 2015, so I’m concerned about that. Obviously, I watch the budget constantly and there’s areas there where I think we had savings from the continuing resolution that could fill this gap, but we have yet to see those numbers. But that’s where I think we’re going to be looking to fund these issues.

Once legislation is passed, how do you gauge success? How will the Legislature monitor that?

There are two different issues we’re talking about here. First of all, everything that is a quick pass, we want to get that out there. Obviously, we want to see the deaths go down and on the other end of it, we want to see that basically, we’re taking these drugs off the street. I think that’s equally important and part of what the Legislature’s been doing in the last two months is interviewing. I was in on interviews with the Manchester Police Department and the state police. We have things we need to do and it’s not even being talked about. I think we need to basically say don’t come into our state, we don’t want these drugs here. I think that’s going to take some kind of funding and some kind of working with law enforcement.

Obviously, law enforcement is one component, but there’s still the overwhelming demand. What about the treatment aspect of it?

You saw how we responded to that when we started the budget process. The reality is we’ve done two things I believe are going to be very effective in New Hampshire as they get implemented. We put health care in New Hampshire and we’re actually working on reauthorization of that. We also increased funding in that category by 75 percent. I think both of those things are working their way into the system right now. Along with that, we still have an 1115 waiver out there that we put in with health care that’s going to stand up the system. There’s a lot in progress, there’s a lot to manage right now, besides what we accomplish in this task force.

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