Nation's opioid crisis garners attention at party conventions

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The nation's epidemic of opioid abuse, which has killed thousands of people over the past decade through powerful prescription painkillers and heroin, has taken on a prominent role at the Democratic National Convention — a sign of the issue's growing importance in both parties.

On Monday night, a woman whose daughter has struggled with addiction gave a prime-time speech, followed by the former governor of New Hampshire, where more than 400 people died of drug overdose deaths last year. Then, on Tuesday afternoon, people packed into a Quaker conference center in Philadelphia to hear delegates, elected officials and others talk about recovering from substance abuse and what needs to be done to combat it.

A similar forum was held at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last week. Both conventions featured a recovery and wellness room for those suffering from addiction.

The focus on opiate addiction comes after a year in which the opiate epidemic drove a sustained conversation on the presidential campaign trail, particularly in New Hampshire, where voters told wrenching stories of how drug abuse upended lives and candidates told starkly personal stories about how addiction affected their families.

It also comes as addiction has moved into the political sphere, after years when advocates felt little was being done. The White House has, for the past few years, held summits on opiate addiction, and Congress last month passed a comprehensive bill backed by both Republicans and Democrats to fight opioid abuse; President Barack Obama signed it this week.

The issue has become a bipartisan one, with many on both sides agreeing that the focus must be on treating people with addiction, not on putting them in prison. However, several Republican presidential contenders last year stopped short of advocating that approach to other drug laws, most notably those involving marijuana and cocaine, which disproportionately affect African Americans. Opiate abuse predominately affects whites.

Last year, presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton went to a roundtable discussion at a New Hampshire manufacturing facility, where Pamela Livengood told Clinton that she had to take care of her grandson because of drug abuse.

Livengood stood on the stage in Philadelphia on Monday night and told her story.

"For my 50th birthday, I got a 2-year-old," the Keene, New Hampshire, woman said, recounting how her daughter could no longer care for her son because she was addicted to drugs. The boy is now living with his grandfather, she said.

"My story isn't unique," Livengood said. "This epidemic has devastated communities all over the country. It doesn't discriminate against age, race, gender or income. It affects all of us. But sometimes it feels like folks in Washington don't hear these stories."

Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of injury-related death in the United States. The rate of heroin-related deaths has quadrupled in the past decade and, in 2014, more than 14,000 people died from overdoses involving prescription painkillers.

"Our policymakers have to understand that this is a situation and issue you can win on," said Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, an alcoholic, at Tuesday's forum. "I don't mean to turn to politics, but families don't know where to turn."

Andrew Kolodny, the chief medical officer at Phoenix House, a national chain of rehab facilities, said it is remarkable that people are talking about opiate addiction at national political conventions because it was swept under the rug until recently.

"It does seem like policymakers have recognized that we're in the midst of the worst addiction epidemics in our nation's history," he said.

Clinton, who made drug addiction part of her stump speech in the primaries, last year released a $10 billion plan to fight drug addiction. It includes widening access to treatment and recovery programs through a federal-state spending package and broadening access to Naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of an opiate overdose.

Republican nominee Donald Trump has said that his plan to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border will keep out drugs, something that people who study drug trafficking said will not stop the flow of heroin. Trump has not offered any specifics on how he will fight drug abuse beyond that.

Drug abuse has become a factor in some Senate races, including in Ohio, where incumbent Sen. Rob Portman (R) and his challenger, former Democratic governor Ted Strickland, are accusing each other of exploiting the epidemic for political gain.

Portman held two drug-related events during the Republican National Convention and spoke on a panel discussion about abuse at the convention.

Both Ohio and Pennsylvania have been decimated by the opiate epidemic. More than 2,500 died of drug overdoses in Ohio in 2014, and nearly 2,500 succumbed in Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia is a hotbed of drug abuse, with dealers selling some of the nation's purest heroin. The city serves as a hub for heroin distribution in Southern New Jersey and the Philadelphia suburbs.

"We have the largest-scale open-air heroin market probably on the East Coast," said Patrick Trainor, a spokesman with the Drug Enforcement Administration in Philadelphia. It is about eight miles north of Wells Fargo Arena, where the convention is taking place.

"The politicians, when they talk about it, it's a start," Trainor said of drug abuse. "It's definitely a start, and we're really, really pleased with that."

Carol McDaid, who is in recovery, said she first tried to bring forums and a recovery room to the party conventions in 2008.

"Honestly, we were told by some of the folks we contacted, 'Our delegates really don't have these problems.' It just kind of stood you back on your heels," she said.

This year, delegates who are also addicts decided to talk about their struggles and recovery.

Ramon Ryan, a Democratic delegate from Tennessee, said he wondered whether he would be able to attend a recovery meeting while at the convention.

"I heard not only are there recovery meetings, there's this amazing caucus," he said. "We are having a public conversation about this issue."


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