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What Republican candidates have been saying about the opioid crisis in New Hampshire

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Next week, New Hampshire holds its presidential primaries. It's a state that has been devastated by opioid addiction. President Biden is not campaigning in the state because of rule changes for the Democratic primary calendar, so his views on this topic have been largely absent from the campaign trail. But Republicans have been talking about it a lot, and their response to the crisis has largely focused on cutting off the supply of illegal drugs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

NIKKI HALEY: We go and we say to them, we're going to end normal trade relations with you until you stop killing Americans.

DONALD TRUMP: If you give the death penalty to drug dealers, you will have no more problems.

RON DESANTIS: We're going to shoot them stone-cold dead right at that southern border.

SUMMERS: That was former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, former President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Some New Hampshire residents say the candidates aren't talking enough about treatment and recovery. We're joined now by Paul Cuno-Booth with New Hampshire Public Radio. Hi, Paul.

PAUL CUNO-BOOTH, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: Paul, so all eyes are on the state of New Hampshire ahead of next week's primaries, and we just heard a snippet of what Republican candidates have been saying across the state. Tell us a bit about what you've been hearing.

CUNO-BOOTH: Yeah. So they often bring up fentanyl when talking about the southern border, linking the issue to fears about unauthorized immigration. Now, I should note federal immigration officials say the vast majority of drugs coming over the border are actually being smuggled through legal points of entry mostly by U.S. citizens and other legal residents, not by migrants crossing without authorization. Nikki Haley has also called for putting more pressure on China, which is a major source of the chemicals used to make fentanyl. But people like Teresa Gladstone, who lives in Concord, N.H., say they want to hear more about how the candidates plan to help people experiencing addiction.

TERESA GLADSTONE: I think they're just throwing stuff out there to try to appease people at this point, and that's not what we need. We need somebody that really is taking it seriously and has sat down and thought about a plan.

CUNO-BOOTH: She lost her grandson to an overdose in 2020, and she now says she wants to hear more about things like expanding access to treatment and preventing people from dying of overdoses.

SUMMERS: And Paul, as we were just hearing from Teresa Gladstone, this is a personal issue for so many people. Are any of the candidates speaking to those very personal concerns?

CUNO-BOOTH: Well, Haley did visit a treatment center this week to talk more about investments in recovery and mental health, but the issue still seems to be getting a lot less attention than it did in 2016. That was the last time we had a lot of Republican presidential candidates campaigning here, and, you know, several of them spoke really personally about family members who'd been struggling with addiction and sort of put forward more detailed plans to address the issue.

SUMMERS: I know from spending time in the state that New Hampshire was hit hard by the opioid crisis early on, but I'm curious - how is it impacting the state today?

CUNO-BOOTH: Well, it continues to have a huge impact here. You know, drug overdose deaths had started to go down before the pandemic, but they've since gone up again, and we're losing more than 400 people every year to this. That's a lot for a small state like New Hampshire. Access to treatment has gotten better over time, but some people are still struggling to get the help they need. That can be especially true in rural areas, where someone might be 30 minutes or an hour from the nearest treatment provider or recovery center.

SUMMERS: For people who have been affected by this issue in New Hampshire - as you've been talking to them, how are they feeling about what the candidates have been saying?

CUNO-BOOTH: Well, I spoke to a couple advocates who've lost loved ones to drug overdoses. For the most part, they say this issue isn't getting the attention it needs, and they'd like the candidates to offer more comprehensive solutions. One of them is Doug Griffin from Newton, N.H. He says the candidates talk a lot about the supply of drugs coming from outside the country, but they're not really addressing the reasons people here at home are turning to drugs in the first place.

DOUG GRIFFIN: The whole issue starts with mental health and prevention. We could - you know, we could stop this problem if we were to address it at an early age.

CUNO-BOOTH: Griffin's daughter, Courtney, died of an overdose when she was 20. And he's saying there, we really need to focus on intervening early in young people's lives so they don't turn to substance use in the first place.

SUMMERS: That's New Hampshire Public Radio's Paul Cuno-Booth. Paul, thank you.

CUNO-BOOTH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOAPELE SONG, "CLOSER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Paul Cuno-Booth