How a Crisis Can Unite Us in Divisive Times—Sunday Political Brunch October 28, 2018

Sunday, October 28, 2018
Mark Curtis, GoLocalWorcester Contributor

Mark Curtis
This was an amazing, yet humbling week. I returned to the White House press room for the first time in almost 20 years. I spent a good chunk of time there in my six years in the Washington, DC press corps. I have a lot of thoughts and reflections on where we are as a nation – some good; some bad – so let’s “brunch” on that this week.

“Terror Again” – I was in the White House Old Executive Office Building Wednesday when word came of the pipe bomb mailings to former President Obama, and former President Bill Clinton, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. There were initial reports that another pipe bomb package was intercepted at the White House, but an hour later that was proved to be untrue. We were not evacuated during the warning. Business as usual at the White House went on. Still, it was jarring and jittering to our nerves.

“The Opioid Scourge” – I flew to Washington, DC for the signing of the massive, multi-billion-dollar bill aimed at stemming the nation’s opioid epidemic. Sadly, where I work in West Virginia, we have the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation. It is devastating. One of the people I interviewed at the White House was Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV). At one point I asked, “Senator I’d like you to answer my questions as a mom and a grandmother, not as a U.S. Senator. “It is heartbreaking,” she said, talking about watching people walk through the streets of our capitol city of Charleston in a drug induced stupor. “I’ve had to talked with parents who’ve lost their children, asking me why?” Capito, an avid runner, also said she encountered numerous discarded drug needles on the streets during her workouts.

“My Observations” – Senator Capito’s reflections echo mine. I live near what is known as the West Side of Charleston, and it breaks my heart. It’s like that Netflix show, “The Walking Dead.” Addicts, high as a kite on opioids or methamphetamines, walking the streets like zombies. I don’t say that to be judgmental. I say it as a clarion call that something must get done. Whatever we are doing now – collectively – is not working. Will the new law help? Let’s discuss.

“It’s Everywhere” – The first thing I want to say is that I work in ground-zero of the epidemic. As mentioned, West Virginia has the sad distinction of having the highest overdose death-rate in the nation. It’s been that way for years. But we’re not alone. Yes, it’s bad in our state and the surrounding Appalachian states, but it’s also a crisis in most New England states, where I worked before moving here. I remember a small-town Texas Mayor dying in a Providence flop-house when I worked in Rhode Island. New Hampshire has been extremely hard hit. My brother Mike is an emergency room doctor in central Wisconsin, and he sees the opioid crisis daily, too.

“The Bill” – So what’s in it? This is a fascinating piece of bipartisan legislation. It was approved in the U.S. Senate 99 to 1. It was approved in the U.S. House 396 to 14. Rarely in my career have I seen such bipartisan agreement, so that may be promising. The traditional argument on this issue is, do we provide the focus on law enforcement, prevention, and, or rehabilitative treatment? The answer is a mix of all three, and the new law attempts just that. We are likely to see more drug trafficking interdictions, more school and community prevention efforts, but, more than anything, more long-term drug treatment.

“What Works?” – This is an issue near and dear to my family. My paternal grandfather, my dad, one of my brothers, and my uncle were, or are, all physicians. I’ve worked in law enforcement and then news. We have an interesting family perspective. I discussed this – and my family history – with Dr. Ben Carson this week at the White House. Dr. Carson – a neurosurgeon - is the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Trump administration. He told me long-term treatment in the bill will replace less effective short-term treatment. "We have a lot of programs for people who are drug addicted that last for 30 days or 60 days. That's not adequate because the changes that occur in the brain normally take somewhere between 12 and 18 months," said Dr. Carson.

“Being There” – As mentioned, this is a nationwide problem not easily fixed, but given that the absolute worst spot is West Virginia, I wondered about the strategy. We’ve had at least seven presidential visits; two by the Vice President; one by the first lady, and, by my count, at least four cabinet leaders. It’s unprecedented. So, will there be more visits to West Virginia and the surrounding Appalachian States, by President Trump? "It's one of the places where we've seen a real impact, and we certainly want to be able to address this. This is obviously a country-wide problem. But certainly, we've seen it be heavily hit in West Virginia, and we want to make sure we're doing everything we can," Sarah Sanders, the White House Press Secretary, told me.

“Cops Still Matter” – As this bill was drafted, there were fierce debates. Should the focus be on, a) law enforcement; b) prevention and education; or, c) treatment and rehabilitation? The best answer I get from advocates - and by the vote - is “all of the above!” At the White House I spoke with Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH), who said, “One of the things we've got to do is stem the flow of these drugs coming into the country, especially Fentanyl. And we know that Fentanyl is a killer. Just a trace of it that, they are putting in cocaine and heroin and marijuana - it's killing people."

“Why All of This Matters” – We are just over ten days until Election Day 2018. There is a lot of volatility in the electorate that could determine if Republicans or Democrats control one, or both, chambers of Congress. The national focus on the drug epidemic matters very much. Stay tuned!

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