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‘Addiction Caucus’ Focuses Conventions on Prevention, Treatment, Recovery

Nonprofit takes discussion of drug-related problems to new level at GOP, DNC gatherings

drug death  coffin
Greta Parrot Schwartz brought coffin listing victims of drug abuse and suicide to Democratic convention in Philadelphia.

Public awareness of opiate addiction and other substance abuse has been growing as the epidemic rampages through New Jersey and a host of other states. Healthcare providers, drug users, and their families have gained a better understanding of the disease and the science behind effective prevention, treatment, and recovery models. And more public officials – including Garden State leaders - have recognized the benefits of these programs.

To continue this momentum – and emphasize the need for compassionate, science-based responses – Facing Addiction, a national nonprofit, hosted a “Caucus for Addiction Solutions” during both the Republican and Democratic conventions this summer. Participants said while drug policy has been discussed at past political conventions, this was the first time it involved such a prominent, well-organized and well-attended event.

“This was the largest one in history,” said Robin Styer, a regional director for Recovery Centers of America, who joined the caucus at the Democratic gathering in Philadelphia, on Tuesday. RCA, a Pennsylvania-based company, opened a Mays Landing facility this year and is scheduled to launch another in Blackwood next year.

The goal of the caucus was to highlight the growing problem of addiction and encourage political leaders to embrace treatments that involve dignity and respect, Styer explained. “We believe that addiction is a disease, and that treatment for recovery must be as accessible as treatment for asthma or cancers,” she said.

The addiction caucus in Philadelphia also attracted Greta Parrot Schwartz, an activist who has raised awareness about mental illness by towing a full-size coffin while walking from her home in Cape May County to Trenton earlier this year. The coffin lists the names of the victims of suicide and drug abuse and Schwartz said DNC visitors added the names of dozens of loved ones lost to the disease.

Schwartz posted online that she was hesitant to haul the coffin to Philly and unsure if the prop would pass security. (It did.) “I didn't want it to be morbid. Especially since I am carrying the names of local children,” she wrote. “But then all of this IS morbid. It's horrifying. And if we don’t see it for what it is we will keep denying it is as bad as it is.”

Facing Addiction, which was founded in October, estimates 45 million Americans – users, friends, and family – are directly impacted by drug abuse. State statistics show that in New Jersey alone, between 28,000 and 33,000 users have sought drug treatment in recent years and opiates killed some 781 state residents in 2014 alone. Experts believe more than 5,000 addicts in the state have died from opioid use in the past decade.

Leaders at the nonprofit said they organized the caucus events to help elected officials and their supporters understand the human side of addiction. The group has called for changes to the way police respond to drug use incidents and for investing more in prevention, screening and early intervention. Mental health and addiction treatments also need to be included as part of a comprehensive healthcare system, they said.

At both conventions Facing Addiction organized panel discussions, workshops and other forums that featured a handful of Congress members, addiction providers, policy experts and others; New York City’s First Lady Chirlane McCray talked about destigmatizing the disease; former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, (D-Rhode Island), who now lives at the Jersey Shore, called equal treatment for addiction and mental illness the “civil rights issue of our time.”

They were not the only ones to raise the issue of addiction. At the Democratic convention, delegates spent time on Monday talking about the topic and House and Senate members met Tuesday to strategize on ways to expand funding, according to reports.

Facing Addiction also led group recovery meetings during both events that were attended by delegates, visitors, media representatives, and other individuals struggling with addiction. Styer, who volunteered in the “Recovery Wellness Room,” said it was based on a model used at Hollywood award shows and seemed an obvious fit for the conventions. “It was hugely successful and an amazing resource for those in recovery,” she said. Participants found the meetings were “a great way to connect with other people in recovery and get the support they need to help them with their recovery while away from home.”

Aaron Kucharski, grassroots coordinator for Facing Addiction, said the group hoped the events would help make addiction a national priority for national leaders regardless of political affiliation. While traditionally seen as a more Democratic issue, support for addiction services now often crosses party lines; Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, has invested heavily in substance abuse efforts in New Jersey. President Barack Obama recently signed a landmark drug treatment bill, but chastised Republican leaders in Congress for not providing the full funding he requested to support the work.

Styer urged leaders to come together to expand the resources available for treatment programs. “We need help, we are in the midst of the worst health epidemic this country has ever seen and yet solutions are not being funded,” Styer said. “We need everyone to have access to effective prevention and treatment options and to allow the millions of Americans who suffer from addiction have a voice in what is happening in our country.”

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