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Drugs Emerge Early As Big Issue in N.H. Campaigns

If one needed proof the opioid crisis is seen as a powerful election issue, confirmation came last week, in the form a $4.6 million dollar ad buy from the GOP group, One Nation.

"Governor Maggie Hassan’s budget veto last year forced delays for substance abuse programs, program delays that threatened families in need. Then, Governor Hassan’s Drug Czar resigned….”

The ad was criticized by Hassan, by members of law enforcement --and also by Kelly Ayotte.

“I don’t think we should play politics with heroin, and that’s why I myself called for it to be taken down.”

But as candidates filed for state office this month, many used the opioid issue as a way to give themselves a boost.

“One element I bring to the table is a depth of time and energy spent, talking to people on the ground who are dealing with this on a regular basis, and  that predates my run for governor.”

That’s Democrat Steve Marchand.  He went so far as to launch his campaign at a recovery center.

Here’s Republican Chris Sununu.

“Over a thousand people died from this crisis, that’s a thousand families torn apart. That is tens of thousands more that have drained their bank accounts and 401ks, trying to get help for loved ones. This is an absolute crisis across this state and we’ve had no leadership in Concord, and had no leadership in Concord and no leadership at the local level. “

Sununu's comments drew immediate heat; first on Twitter, where Manchester Police Chief Nick Willard called his comments “idiotic.”

Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas, also a GOP candidate for Governor, asked Sununu to apologize. Another Republican out to win the corner office, Jeannie Forrester, also took aim.

"To me it speaks to his immaturity, his lack of wisdom, saying something like that, and to me it was kind of surprising, given the political dynasty that he comes from. "

That politicians jockeying to win elections would see a high-profile as a way tout their leadership and cast doubts on their rivals shouldn’t surprise.

According to recent UNH polls, voters see drugs as the biggest problem facing the state --- by more than two to one. As recently as 2 years ago, the issue barely rated.

“When the economy tanked in 2007 we saw that economic concerns were very low and then went up really high, but nothing like this, to this height.”

UNH Survey Center director Andy Smith says if any politician needs to confirm that heroin is on voters’ minds they should consider this.

“The staggering thing is right now more than half the people in the state say they know someone personally who has abused heroin.”

And candidates are campaigning like it. Several have already spelled out their plans to combat opioids, more will follow suit soon. Yet while heroin and opioids are a fresh topic on the campaign trail, they’ve been a big issue in Concord for much of the last two years. And what most of the candidates are talking about: boosting treatment options and anti-drug education, and cracking down on dealers, are policies lawmakers across the ideological spectrum have been debating –and mostly agreeing on. Expect the imperatives of campaign season, to drive them to stress any differences.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.

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