Ruffled New Hampshire lawmakers were quick to respond Thursday to derisive leaked comments in which President Trump referred to the Granite State as a “drug-infested den.”
Trump made the comments during a heated Jan. 27 phone call with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, in which he fumed over drug cartels bringing illegal substances over the border. He invoked New Hampshire as an example of a place that has endured the brutal effects of the opioid epidemic, calling it a “drug-infested den,” according to a newly released transcript of the conversation published by the Washington Post.
According to a report from the Department of Homeland Security, Mexican drug cartels make $19 to $29 billion from U.S. drug sales per year. Still, experts say the opioid epidemic is also in large part due to overprescribing of legal opioid medication.
“We have a massive drug problem where kids are becoming addicted to drugs because the drugs are being sold for less money than candy,” the president said in the call, according to the transcript. “I won New Hampshire because New Hampshire is a drug-infested den.”
Trump in fact lost New Hampshire to Hillary Clinton in the presidential election. He won the state in the Republican primary.
Both New Hampshire senators were quick to respond to the comments. Trump “owes NH an apology & then should follow through on his promise to Granite Staters to help end this crisis,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen tweeted after the transcript was published. “It’s absolutely unacceptable for the President to be talking about NH in this way — a gross misrepresentation of NH & the epidemic.”
Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., tweeted that Trump’s comments were “disgusting.”
“As he knows, NH and states across America have a substance misuse crisis,” Hassan tweeted. “To date, [Trump] has proposed policies that would severely set back our efforts to combat this devastating epidemic. Instead of insulting people in the throes of addiction, [Trump] needs to work across party lines to actually stem the tide of this crisis.”
Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., also weighed in and didn’t mince words:
“No, Mr. President, you’re wrong about New Hampshire, but you have failed to help us fight the opioid crisis,” Shea-Porter wrote in a Facebook post Thursday. “We need recovery facilities NOW. Stop attacking health care and make the investments you promised.”
New Hampshire ranks second in the nation — behind West Virginia — in opioid-related deaths per capita and ranks first for fentanyl-related deaths relative to the population. According to the New Hampshire Drug Monitoring Initiative, opioid-related deaths have steadily climbed since 2012, and overdose deaths are projected to increase by 9 percent from 2015 to 2016, once all the data is configured.
During his campaign, Trump repeatedly promised to solve the opioid crisis raging throughout the U.S., and he specifically promised in New Hampshire to “stop the heroin from pouring in” during a campaign stop in September 2016.
In a seeming attempt to make good on that promise, Trump announced the creation of an opioid commission, led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, in March. At the time, New Hampshire Sen. Shaheen expressed disappointment that not one official from her state was at the initial session.
The commission released its first report on Monday, in which Gov. Christie presented the president with his findings, but the news was largely overshadowed by Christie’s spat with a spectator at a baseball game.
“We hope that the president declares a public health emergency in this country,” Christie said on Monday.
Both Shaheen and Hassan argued that Trump’s attempt to dramatically cut funding to addiction recovery programs and the push to end Medicaid expansion in the now-defunct Obamacare repeal would have had dire consequences for people battling opioid addiction. Experts estimated that nearly 1.3 million Americans would have lost access to substance-abuse treatment under Trump’s failed health care bill.
In April, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced it would provide grants to every state to fight the opioid crisis. The funding, which was determined based on the rates of overdose deaths per capita, is intended to go toward prevention, treatment and recovery services. New Hampshire was awarded $6.2 million, which will be allocated in two installments ($3.1 million) over a two-year period. Still, New Hampshire leadership says it isn’t enough to properly tend to those who affected by opioid addiction.
“$3 million is not that much, actually,” Tym Rourke, chairman of the state’s commission on drug abuse and treatment, told the Concord Monitor in March. The state has the one of the lowest levels of access of substance abuse treatment in the country.
Opioids — both prescription medications and street drugs like heroin — are now the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S., killing more than 33,000 people in 2015, more than any year on record, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About half that number involved prescription opioids.
Experts acknowledge the complexity of the crisis, in which many users often are legally prescribed a painkiller for a medical treatment, but then turn to a cheaper, more potent high from illicit drugs like heroin, fentanyl and carfentanil.
“The opioid crisis is different than other drug crises in our history in that abusers have a different pathway to addiction — through pain medication, pharmacies — than other addicts,” Faye Taxman, professor of criminology, law, and society at George Mason University, told Yahoo News in March. “The new strategy must reduce the barriers to treatment and also provide for a path to deal with the stigma of having a drug addiction problem.”
Despite the lack of sufficient federal funds, New Hampshire has created several statewide initiatives in an attempt to lower rates of use and increase access to treatment programs. For example, in 2016, the Manchester Fire Department started the Safe Station program, which provides 24-hour assistance to addicts seeking treatment. The police department in Laconia, N.H., has created a similar program, in which officers work directly with former addicts and treatment facilities to help those who are in the throes of addiction to access recovery services faster. More beds are being added to rehabilitation centers, and most police departments throughout the state have all but decriminalized opioid use to make way for treatment programs.
“The President is wrong,” N.H. Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, said in a statement in response to Trump’s newly revealed comments. “We are facing this challenge head on. We have doubled our resources to support prevention, treatment and recovery; dedicated millions to law enforcements efforts to keep drugs out of our state, increased the availability of naloxone, and are rebuilding our prevention programs for our kids.”
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