The Unknown Epidemic

Last year, the governor of Vermont dedicated his entire State of the State speech to one topic. One would assume that this would be one of the huge issues we always hear about in U.S. politics–taxes, Obamacare, the budget, etc. These guesses would all be wrong. The speech was about the epidemic overrunning his state: opioid drug abuse.

Despite such recognition of the epidemic’s scope, the public does not widely view this issue as a national priority. If you think it is exaggerating to call opioid drug abuse in America an epidemic, just listen to the CDC. Or look at the numbers. Since 2000, Vermont has experienced a 770% increase in treatment for opioid addictions. In Massachusetts, deaths from overdoses in 2014 topped 1000, a stunning increase from the few hundred in 2012. According to the White House fact sheet written on October 21, more people now die from drug overdoses than car crashes. Every day, forty-four people die from prescription drug abuse. Our country is experiencing a full-blown opioid crisis, an issue that is particularly dear to me because New England, my home region, has been particularly hard hit, although every state in the country is currently struggling with opioid abuse.

Understanding how this situation came about requires acknowledging important underlying trends. The first, and most important, is prescription drug abuse. According to the CDC, the amount of prescription painkillers prescribed and sold in the United States has quadrupled since 1999, despite no major rise in pain reported. The number of painkillers prescribed has shot up tremendously, and this rise is naturally linked to increased drug abuse. According to a study cited by Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker, four out of five heroin addicts in his state got hooked on opioids through prescription painkillers. A New York Times report on the epidemic in New England states that the price of a bag of heroin is often half that of painkillers, providing a much cheaper high for addicts and a lucrative market for heroin dealers that they have ruthlessly exploited. This is the road that leads many to heroin abuse and often overdose.

Fortunately, communities across the country are taking positive action to combat the crisis. The federal government and many state governments are increasing budgets for programs to fight prescription opioid abuse. Governors are increasing interstate communication to prevent border-hopping of those attempting to get multiple prescriptions, and similar bills have entered Congress. In addition, steps are being taken to address the vast over-prescription of opioid pain medication, a major root of the problem. While all these efforts–including cracking down on the drug traffickers whose work has devastated communities nationwide–are essential, our priority must also be to treat those affected by addiction.

Fortunately, the recent widespread use of the drug Narcan has prevented many fatal overdoses by reversing heroin’s effect on the brain. However, simply preventing deaths does nothing if we do nothing to treat the underlying disease. To do this, society at large must recognize that addiction is a disease. Addiction is federally described as a progressive, reversible brain disease, with the American Society of Addiction Medicine describing it as a, “chronic, relapsing brain disease”. For addicts, a compulsive dependence on substances takes away their freedom. Without treatment, the outcome is often fatal: the affected person overdoses. With millions of Americans currently struggling with addiction to opioids, our focus should be on treating their problem, rather than locking them in jail with the people who sold to them. This requires money, resources and willpower. With the crisis in full swing, many affected communities have the resolve, but it is up to the rest of us to help them obtain money and resources as well.

If the numbers do not prompt us to act, then the stories of those affected must. You will find a person in every community who knows another person struggling with addiction. Often, this is someone in his or her family. Sometimes, this person has been taken from them by an overdose. Maybe it’s a son, or even two. This is true even for those who desire to lead our country, with Carly Fiorina, a Republican candidate for president, having lost a stepdaughter to a drug overdose. The faces of addiction and the personal stories behind those faces drive the urgency of action in a way that no numbers can.

These people are our loved ones, not criminals and menaces to society. In the months and years to come, we must combat this crisis through diverse approaches to fight its wide-ranging causes and effects. However, we cannot forget the people whose lives have been ruined by opioids by denying them the resources and the treatment they need to recover from their addiction.

This will be a long, hard fight. But I believe that we can effectively reverse this scourge infecting American communities and help rebuild the lives of many Americans with thorough, compassionate, and concerted action.

Stop Family Detention Now

Under the Obama Administration, for-profit detention centers have detained thousands of undocumented women and their children. Rife with issues relating to abuse, poor medical treatment, and neglect, these detention facilities are filled mostly with women and children that should qualify for asylum status.

Despite promises from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to reform detention practices, relatively little has been done to end the detention of women and families or detention of immigrants as a whole. In fact, in response to the recent migration of Central American refugees, the Department of Homeland Security increased detention of mothers and children by 4,000 percent.

Detention centers are expensive to maintain, especially now. Regular detention of immigrants costs an estimated $60,000 a year per detainee, while detention of families is estimated to cost over $120,000 a year per family member. Often, children who are natural-born American citizens are split from their parents, causing the government to step in and take care of the child and thus expanding the number of people in need of government aid. To make matters worse, family detention centers, like the infamous Hutto facility in Texas, have been constantly accused of allowing deplorable conditions: malnourishment, unsanitary conditions, and sexual assault remain constant problems.

On top of being cost-inefficient, detention centers have a negative impact on the psychological and physical development of children. At the detention center in Artesia, New Mexico, children experienced abnormally high rates of weight loss, gastrointestinal problems, and suicidal thoughts.

Not only is the American method of detaining immigrants appalling, but it is often illegal. Over the summer, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ruled that the detainment of immigrant families and children violates the 1997 court caseFlores v. Meese. In the ruling, Gee ordered that the administration stop “holding children at centers not licensed to care for them and from holding families unless they posed a flight risk or a threat to national security.” Though the government was given the deadline of October 23rd to comply with the ruling, justice department attorneys have yet to file proof that they have complied with Gee’s orders. Immigrant detention centers have additionally been involved in scandals regarding indefinite and mandatory detention and more notably the use of “slave labor” to run detention facilities.

The large-scale detention of immigrant families in the United States is both expensive and embarrassing, not to mention a gross violation of human rights. In addition to the high economic costs, there has been a lack of transparency while abuse of detainees is a pervasive, recurring problem. It is reasonable to say that human rights abuses alone provide enough reason to end family detention.

In the Jungle of California

Loretta Sanchez, Kamala HarrisCalifornia has the largest population of any state in the Union, and as such plays an extremely influential role in the national politics. Long a bastion of liberalism, it is unsurprising that many influential Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (CA-12) and venerable Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer hail from the Golden State. What’s more, California’s large and diverse electorate can make it seem more like a nation than a state.

Despite California’s size and importance—or perhaps because of it—California’s statewide elections have been relatively placid for years, with the state’s central Democratic Party keeping a tight grip over who it chooses to nominate for Governor and the two sitting Senators being consistently re-elected. However, in the past few months that has changed dramatically.

In January, Senator Barbara Boxer announced that she would not be running for a fifth term and in effect set off what looks to be the second largest and most expensive election of 2016 after the presidential election. The shockwaves her announcement has sent throughout California politics have created an opportunity for California Democrats that hasn’t come since Boxer’s election in 1992.

What makes this election particularly interesting is that California is one of three states with a top-two primary system, or as it’s mockingly called, a “jungle primary”, where all candidates are put on the same ballot in June and the two candidates that receive the most votes proceed onto the general election. What that means is that two candidates from the same party can run against each other in the general election if they each receive enough of the vote.

Although panned in the past as a way of splitting the Democratic vote between multiple candidates in a state where they should have the advantage while failing to increase voter turnout, this election cycle looks set to send two Democrats to the general election. Attorney General of California Kamala Harris and Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (CA-47) have pulled ahead of the myriad of Republican candidates early on, setting the stage for a showdown between two Democrats for Boxer’s Senate seat.

Kamala Harris in particular has created an early lead by raising over six million dollars and by securing important endorsements from rising Democratic stars such as Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand. Combined with her firmly liberal record of supporting same-sex marriage during California’s struggle to recognize same-sex couples, her previous fights for environmental rights, her open opposition to the big-money politics of Wall Street, and her statewide recognition, Harris has become the candidate to beat.

However, Loretta Sanchez is answering that challenge with considerable aplomb. Featured as a more moderate Democrat, Sanchez is attempting to build up enough support to come in second in the open primary so that she can attract independents and Republicans in the general election. While she has a solid record as a liberal in regards to social issues, her position as the most senior female member of the House Armed Service Committee and her years of business experience before becoming a member of Congress may make her more palatable to Republicans in the general election.

Judging from Harris’ early lead and the fractured group of Republicans running, it seems clear that Harris will be in the general election. The question is whether Sanchez can pick up the votes necessary to join her, and it increasingly looks like the answer to that question is yes.

Although Harris has a considerable campaign war chest, it has been noted that she is spending money almost as quickly as she is raising it. Some estimate that by the time of the general election, her pattern of overspending will put Sanchez on par with her, particularly as Sanchez steps up her campaign.

Even more importantly, California has a large and growing Hispanic population. Although Harris polls well among Bay Area Californians and voters on the coast, Sanchez, as the daughter of Mexican immigrants, has a natural advantage among the Hispanic population. Most years, Hispanics don’t vote with nearly the same regularity as other groups, but this year is different. This year, Donald Trump is running for office.

It’s been noted that Democrats around the country have been using the anger that Donald Trump and other Republican candidates, such as Ben Carson, have provoked among the Latino population to help turn out their vote. In a year where the power of Latinos looks increasingly ascendant, Sanchez would be a fool not to rally support among the large Hispanic population in her state.

If Republicans fail to coalesce around a single candidate, which they haven’t done so far, Sanchez may well come in second in the primary only to win it all in the general. Although it’s been pointed out that when a party isn’t fielding a candidate in the general election most of its members simply don’t vote, Harris’ brazen liberalism may push Republicans to vote for someone they would feel more comfortable with – someone like Loretta Sanchez.

In the increasing likelihood that two Democrats make it to the general election, it will be an election that Democrats all across the country should watch for. It will be a true test of what a post-Great Recession era Democrat looks like. Whether it’s the Warrenite or the Blue Dog who wins, it seems certain that this election will have implications beyond just California.

What Has Hillary Done?

Any Hillary Clinton apologist knows that the most grating thing to hear from Clinton loathers is the question, “What has Hillary Clinton done?” More specifically, what did she do as Secretary of State that gives her not only more credibility on foreign policy matters than any other presidential candidate running, but gives her an accomplishment to stand on as she seeks the presidency?

The position of Secretary of State is not one that can be spun politically to emphasize accomplishments and principled stances the way a senator or governor can. It is a cabinet position that implements the president’s agenda. In other words, her accomplishments and failures are the president’s accomplishments and failures. For example, her recommendation to President Obama to order the raid that killed Osama bin Laden is a good decision shared by both her and the president. She pressed hard for the U.S. to intervene in Libya, and must own that foreign policy failure along with the president. Demanding an accomplishment of a cabinet-level secretary in the same vein as a governor or senator is an unfair political litmus test. The role of the Secretary of State is to carry out our national interests on the global stage. Just doing that would have been a sufficient job. However, Hillary Clinton does have some achievements to her name that she will run on regardless, and that Hillary Clinton apologists can use whenever someone questions her record at State.

As Secretary of State, she logged more miles around the world than any other diplomat in American history. She rallied the U.S. Senate to approve the 2010 New START treaty with Russia after her department had negotiated it with the Russian Foreign Ministry. She led the U.S. response to the Arab spring in the Islamic Maghreb. She implemented the diplomatic aspects of President Obama’s “Pivot to Asia,” namely the negotiation of the twelve-nation free trade Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) pact. She ended her tenure at the State Department by brokering a cease fire in Gaza after conflict flared in 2012. And it was her back-channel talks with the Iranians that paved the way for the opening of negotiation of the Iran deal.

All of these are incredible feats, but to a diplomat it is one’s duty. Everything Hillary Clinton accomplished as Secretary of State was within the scope of doing her job, and doing it well. That stands in contrast to both of her predecessors. If we are to consider the political situation that Clinton inherited when she first assumed the post in 2009, having no achievements at all is far better than the “accomplishments” of her predecessors.

As Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, Colin Powell sold an intractable and costly war with Iraq to the American public and the international community, causing the loss of thousands of American lives and billions of dollars, shattering our credibility in the Middle East, and leading to the rise of sectarian violence and, eventually, ISIS. His successor Condoleeza Rice, who was behind many of the failures of Bush’s first term as his National Security Adviser, failed to improve upon the performances of her predecessor. It was Hillary Clinton who inherited a nation with its diplomatic relations in tatters. Her leadership and decision-making helped turn around perceptions of the U.S. as a brute force willing to violate international law to advance a morally self-righteous foreign policy over the wishes of allies and neutral state actors.

The fact that we are more respected as a nation willing to engage in diplomacy over unilateral violence around the world is in large part thanks to Secretary Clinton’s work at State. When someone asks what Hillary has done that qualifies her to be President, keep in mind the job of a president as the Head of State and how her work has made the United States that much more respected in the international order.