SALEM, NH — Not a day goes by on the New Hampshire campaign trail without residents grilling the men and women running for president on how they will address the prescription drug and heroin epidemic sweeping both the state and the country.
Sen. Ted Cruz’s Friday night town hall in Salem was no different. From the back of an elementary school cafeteria packed to capacity, Michael DeLeon called out questions to Cruz on whether he would order a federal, mandatory prescription drug monitoring program and if he would consider restricting how much pharmaceutical companies can market their products on television to unsuspecting consumers. Many cheered the question, but Cruz declined on both counts, citing the constitutional rights of big pharmaceutical companies.
“Under the First Amendment, anyone has the right to speak out and communicate with the people,” he said. “I think bad things happen when Washington decides, ‘We don’t like this speech but we do like that speech.'” While Cruz acknowledged that more oversight of the pharmaceutical industry is needed, saying, “We do have a problem with over-prescribing and people getting addicted,” he would not endorse a federal monitoring program. In fact, he called for loosening regulations to allow the Food and Drug Administration to more quickly give new drugs the stamp of approval.
When pressed on how he would combat the epidemic of heroin overdoses — which happen hundreds of times each year in New Hampshire alone — Cruz answered that he would build a wall along the U.S./Mexico border.
Visibly frustrated, DeLeon began removing the Cruz campaign buttons he had pinned to his chest.
“I’m all for the borders being shut, but drugs are getting into the hands of addicts from drug dealers in lab coats,” he told ThinkProgress. “The pharmaceutical industry is complicit in killing people. It’s a business for them. I understand Cruz’s constitutional point, but that doesn’t outweigh all the people that are dying of overdoses. So Ted Cruz completely lost my vote today.”
CREDIT: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
DeLeon is not a Hampshire voter. Like hundreds of other political tourists flooding the state this weekend, he came hoping for a chance to talk to the men and women running for president. A former drug dealer himself who spent time in prison and now counsels young people about substance abuse and addiction, DeLeon drove up from his hometown of Camden, New Jersey to press as many candidates as possible for concrete answers.
“Chris Christie and Jeb Bush told me they wouldn’t have a mandatory monitoring program or limit the pharmaceutical ads either,” he said. “Fiorina said she would have a mandatory program but she wouldn’t take the ads off TV. Tomorrow I’m going to try to ask Rubio and Kasich. I’m just really worried that we’ve created a pill society, where the American public thinks pills are safe and pills are the answer. They see ads with women on horses galloping down the beach that say, ‘Take a pill.'”
DeLeon noted that the U.S. is just one of two nations in the world that allow pharmaceutical companies to market drugs directly to the public on TV, and that strong prescription drugs like Oxycodone are often a gateway to a heroin addiction.
“I was part of the problem, so when I got out of prison I wanted to be part of the solution,” DeLeon told ThinkProgress. “I had 26 kids on my caseload. I saw them for an hour a week. Four years ago, in the span of 10 days, four of them died of a heroin overdose. They were all suburban kids, all Caucasian, all affluent, all from two-parent households.”
As he reminded the audience on Friday, Cruz has also experienced the tragedy of losing someone to addiction. He told the few hundred people gathered in Salem about his older half-sister Miriam, who died of an overdose in 2011. Other candidates, including Carly Fiorina, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, have also spoken candidly on the New Hampshire campaign trail about struggles with addiction in the own families. For some, the experience changed their political stance on drugs, moving them away from a pro-incarceration stance to one centered on rehabilitation.
When Granite Staters go to the polls on Tuesday for the first-in-the-nation primary, the drug addiction and overdose epidemic will be at the forefront of their minds. The state has one of the highest per-capita rates of addiction in the country and the second-worse access to treatment programs. A poll in October found that it’s the number one concern of New Hampshire voters, ranking above health care, education, and taxes. Whether or not ABC moderators ask the candidates for their views on the issue at Saturday night’s GOP debate, the presidential hopefuls can expect to be questioned on the topic again and again until election day.