The Presidential Candidate U-Turn on Addiction

By Keri Blakinger 02/01/16

The six front-running presidential candidates have stopped being silent about addiction and seem to actually care. 

Candidate Check Ups

Just a few months ago, addiction was barely getting any mention in the race for the White House, but now it’s the hot topic on every candidate’s lips. Here’s a look at where some of the frontrunners stand on drug policy issues right now. 

Donald Trump

Over the years, Trump has been all over the place on drug policy. Back in 1990, he suggested legalizing all drugs and keeping the profits for drug education.

"We're losing badly the war on drugs," he said at an event in Florida, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. "You have to legalize drugs to win that war. You have to take the profit away from these drug czars."

But 25 years later, he wasn’t even in favor of marijuana legalization, based on his comments at the 2015 CPAC conference. In response to a question about marijuana legalization, he said, "I say it's bad. Medical marijuana is another thing, but I think it's bad, and I feel strongly about it."

However, in October he clarified that he’s okay with leaving the matter up to individual states. At a rally in Nevada, he said, "In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state-by-state," according to the Washington Post.

While that’s not exactly a progressive view, at this point it’s still more progressive than some. Chris Christie, for instance, has vowed to crack down on recreational marijuana use even in the states that have already legalized it. 

Another hot-button drug issue this election season has been the heroin epidemic. Trump’s proposed solution to that is the same solution he offers for seemingly everything: build a wall. 

Back in June, Trump enraged Latinos and sensible people everywhere when he blamed various types of crime—including the drug trade—on Mexicans. 

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best … they’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us,” he said. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

In January, Trump took that thought to its logical (for Trump) conclusion and advocated again for his border wall idea, this time implying that it could help stem the heroin crisis. At a rally in New Hampshire, he fielded a question about heroin and, oddly lapsing into millennial-speak, replied, “The problem of heroin in New Hampshire is unbelievable, it’s like an unbelievable problem that you have."

But, for this “unbelievable” problem, Trump offered this unbelievable answer:

"It's always the first question I get, and they have a problem all over. And it comes through the border," the frontrunner said, according to Politico. "We're going to build a wall, number one, we're going to build a wall, and it's going to be a real wall." Apparently he doesn’t think imaginary walls will win the war on drugs. (Of course, real walls won’t either.)

Hillary Clinton 

Like Trump, Clinton has been confronted with the heroin crisis during visits to New Hampshire. Speaking in Salem in December, Clinton talked about how big the issue has become on the campaign trail. 

"I’ve had two town halls right here in New Hampshire ... where the only subject was substance abuse," she said, according to The Huffington Post. She went on to ask the crowd how many people had witnessed or been affected by a mental health problem or by substance abuse—and nearly every hand in the house went up. 

Because of moments like that elsewhere on the campaign trail, in September, Clinton announced a $10 billion plan to fight addiction. 

“This is not new,” she wrote when she unveiled the plan in an op-ed for the New Hampshire Union-Leader. “We’re not just now ‘discovering’ this problem. But we should be saying enough is enough,” she wrote. “It’s time we recognize as a nation that for too long, we have had a quiet epidemic on our hands. Plain and simple, drug and alcohol addiction is a disease, not a moral failing—and we must treat it as such.”

The plan would include $7.5 billion in funding for states to develop and improve programs to fight addiction. Also, the plan would make sure first responders have naloxone, train health care providers to better recognize substance abuse before prescribing certain drugs, and “prioritize treatment over prison for low-level and nonviolent offenders.”

Ted Cruz

Like Trump, Cruz has tied the solution to addiction to border security. In January, the Canadian-born candidate said that cartels are trafficking “drugs in vast quantities” from Mexico and that cracking down on immigration is the solution.

He also struggled to connect with voters on the issue by making it personal. Carly Fiorina has spoken repeatedly about her stepdaughter’s struggle with addiction, and it turns out that Cruz has a similar tale to tell. 

“I know New Hampshire in particular has been hit hard with the heroin epidemic, it is really ugly,” Cruz said during his January visit to Keene, according to BuzzFeed. “I will note this is an issue I have more than passing experience with. My older sister Miriam died of a drug overdose. And so she was 9 years older than I am. She had a hard life. She made a lot of foolish decisions over and over and over again. And she had problems with drinking and substance abuse. One morning she didn’t wake up, she had overdosed. It is a horrible scourge in our society.”

Those in the addiction and recovery community might reasonably hope that Cruz understands addiction as more than “a lot of foolish decisions,” but it’s great to see him opening up about the issue in some capacity. 

Bernie Sanders 

The senator from Vermont scored points in the recovery community when he came out swinging during a December debate in New Hampshire. 

“I think we have got to tell the medical profession and doctors who are prescribing opiates, and the pharmaceutical industry that they have got to start getting their act together. We cannot have this huge number of opiates out there throughout this country where young people are taking them, getting hooked, and then going to heroin,” he said.

He drew applause when he went on to add, “We need to understand that addiction is a disease, not a criminal activity. And that means radically changing the way we deal with mental health and addiction issues.”

At the January debate, Sanders again tackled the issue, focusing on the responsibility of drug companies. "There is a responsibility on the part of the pharmaceutical industry and the drug companies who are producing all of these drugs and not looking at the consequence of it," he said, according to Vox.

Last year, Sanders called out pharma companies for a different addiction-related issue—the high price of naloxone. Sanders—along with Clinton and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.)—penned a letter to the National Governors Association and National Association of Attorneys General, asking them to help push for agreements between states and naloxone distributors. 

“The opioid abuse epidemic is a public health emergency that must be addressed, and no company should jeopardize the progress many states have made in tackling this emergency by overcharging for a critically important drug like naloxone,” the letter said, according to The Hill. 

Ben Carson 

The bucket of crazy known as Ben Carson has, of course, continued to be crazy when it comes to addressing addiction. Carson offered a real head-scratcher when asked about addiction on Face the Nation in November.

“[U]sually, addictions occur in people who are vulnerable, who are lacking something in their lives,” he said. “And so we have to really start asking ourselves, what have we taken out of our lives in America? What are some of those values and principles that allowed us to ascend the ladder of success so rapidly to the very pinnacle of the world and the highest pinnacle anyone else had ever reached?

“And why are we in the process of throwing away all of our values and principles for the sake of political correctness?”

Unlike some of the others in the race, Carson has not offered any specific plan to combat addiction and—disappointingly, for a doctor—he hasn’t even shown any basic understanding of what addiction is. Instead, he’s content to sit back and blame it all on political correctness—and Mexico. 

Echoing Trump and Cruz, Carson spoke about drugs in relation to the southern border. At a January town hall in Staten Island, the neurosurgeon said that law enforcement at the border had shown him "incredible loads of heroin and marijuana ... It's coming through like an express highway and we're not stopping it. And that's why in a lot of cities, you know, you can buy a pack of heroin for less than you can buy a pack of cigarettes and it's destroying us," according to the Staten Island Advance.

Marco Rubio

The Florida senator has not spoken as much about drugs as some of the other candidates. One of the notably odd and uninformed things he has said, though, was an attempt to use the uptick in opiate use as justification for opposing marijuana legalization. 

“You talk about New Hampshire for a moment. One of the stories that has not been as reported nationally, is the fact that many of the people who today are dependent on heroin, is because they became dependent on prescription opiates,” Rubio said when asked why he does not support marijuana legalization at a forum in New Hampshire in August, according to the Daily Beast. 

What’s especially weird about that statement is that it would seem to imply that he’s against medical marijuana, too, since he’s pointing out prescription substances as the source of problems. However, he doesn’t oppose the use of medical marijuana—just recreational pot, according to an October article in Mother Jones. 

Keri Blakinger is a writer and prison-reform activist living near New York City. A writer for The New York Daily News, she has also been published in The Washington Post, Salon, and Quartz.

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.