Get out the recovery vote: Addiction is a political issue, and it's time to organize

Services vital to helping millions of Americans get healthy and stay alive are at risk in the midterm elections

Published November 3, 2018 11:00AM (EDT)

Ryan Hampton (Courtesy of the Author)
Ryan Hampton (Courtesy of the Author)

If you are one of the 23 millions Americans in recovery or with a history of addiction, your rights are on the ballot next week. Substance use disorder is a pre-existing condition. Voting to protect your recovery, and promote healthier communities, is key to ending the drug epidemic.

Before I became a recovery activist, I spent a decade in active heroin addiction. I’ve lost more than two dozen friends to this disease. Before I got sick, I was a community and political organizer, passionate about making a difference. I know firsthand that grassroots political efforts can impact our laws and our national attitude in significant ways. It’s time to bring that awareness to the stigma of addiction and end the crisis that’s killing our communities.

I believe that the answer to ending the addiction crisis is political engagement. That’s why I’m on a mission to register and engage one million recovery voters by 2020. Recovery can and should be a number one issue for voters: it affects all of us.

The math is on our side. With 1 in 3 American households impacted by this public health crisis, we can take a page from other social justice movements. For example, in 1996, 27 percent of Americans supported equality for LGBT people. That number rocketed to over 67 percent in 2018. The 2018 number correlated with fewer hate crimes, less stigma, and a lowered death rate due to AIDS. The acceptance of LGBTQ people was due to direct action and activism by the gay community. Now, we’re seeing the same progress in the recovery community. People in recovery are sharing their stories, coming out and sharing their recovery status, and showing their faces. The results of these action will take time. But I am confident they will lead to a better, healthier, and more inclusive America.

We have a long way to go. 58 percent of Americans surveyed in an October 2017 PBS poll stated that they do not believe addiction is a public health crisis. Yet, the data doesn’t lie. Addiction is a silent killer, and is present in almost every home in America. Our offices, gyms, community centers, churches, social organizations, and schools all include people with substance use disorder. Recovery is not possible unless we include and support people with this illness. Until then, we’ll continue to lose the people we love to this highly treatable disease.

Although the media focuses largely on opioid use, substance use disorder is a mental health disorder with serious health consequences. Recovery-specific healthcare includes a broad spectrum of support services, including inpatient and outpatient treatment, medications like methadone or naltrexone, recovery coaching, harm reduction, safe recovery housing, and mental health therapy. Those services, which are vital to helping millions of Americans get healthy and stay alive, are at risk in next week’s midterm elections.

The candidates you select in the voting booth are looking at healthcare. That means all healthcare, especially pre-existing conditions like substance use disorder. Losing access to recovery services could be lethal to people who are at risk. There are 23 million Americans in recovery -- and another 22 million who need help right now. If we all voted and stood up for recovery, we could end the national drug crisis overnight. We’d get access to funding and healthcare services that keep our friends, family members, and loved ones alive and well.

Almost every candidate will say that they care about recovery, but few have an actual plan for ending the addiction crisis. What do they have in mind? Longer jail sentences, more severe punishments, mandatory drug testing? Those approaches don’t work, and candidates that are truly supportive of recovery understand that we need access to shame-free healthcare, resources like peer recovery supports and evidence based treatment, and reliable harm reduction strategies. Almost 200 people die every single day from a drug overdose: what are our elected officials doing to make the death toll zero?

We must end the drug epidemic. It is a public health crisis that, in a single year, killed more people than died in the Vietnam War. Addiction is more lethal than AIDS, and ends more lives than breast cancer.

Because our nation still struggles to address recovery, we are losing an entire generation. America’s overdose death toll makes national headlines, but politicians have been slow to address this health crisis as what it is: a natural disaster that’s killing our families and our economy. Since 2001, the opioid crisis' direct costs have topped $1 trillion, according to Altarum, a healthcare research nonprofit. These include massive economic losses in healthcare, criminal justice, legal, and lost workplace production/participation. Yet, for every dollar we invest in treatment and recovery, we save $4 in healthcare costs and $7 in criminal justice costs. From an economic standpoint, recovery is a solid investment in America’s future.

So, how do you know which candidates care about recovery? The recent vote in Congress to support the package of bills to fight the opioid crisis passed almost unanimously. The Support for Patients and Communities Act passed 99 to 1. It’s clear that recovery has strong bipartisan support, in Congress and the White House. But when we talk about recovery as a public health issue, it’s harder to tell what side someone is on.

Looking more deeply at protecting people with pre-existing conditions like addiction, cancer, pregnancy, or mental health disorders, it’s clear that politicians are divided. The Affordable Care Act (ACA), which is also called Obamacare, was nearly repealed last year. Many of the 43 senators who voted to “repeal and replace” the ACA are running for office again in the midterms. They’ll likely move to end protection for Americans with substance use disorder. Candidates who see addiction as a moral failing are not on our side. Nor do they care about investing in recovery in our towns and communities.

Recovery is a healthcare issue and must be protected if we’re going to end the drug epidemic. We can’t fight addiction if we don’t fund recovery supports and call out the stigma that keeps 90% of people affected by the disease from seeking any kind of medical help for their illness. As a constituency of consequence, we have the numbers. We just need to get organized. Our lives matter. So do our voices, in and out of the voting booth.

I’m looking beyond the talking points and rhetoric on November 6 and putting recovery first. Will you?


By Ryan Hampton

Ryan Hampton is a nationally recognized recovery advocate, community organizer, and person in long-term recovery. He is the author of "Unsettled: How the Purdue Pharma Bankruptcy Failed the Victims of the American Overdose Crisis." Follow him on Twitter: @RyanForRecovery

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