In September Manchester saw record breaking numbers in both drug fatalities and overdoses. So for many voters heading to the polls next week for local elections - this crisis remains their number one issue.
It was a hot autumn day in downtown when I stopped by the city’s last farmer’s market of the season to catch up with some voters. Our conversations that day, tended to land on the same topic: the opioid crisis.
“I know people who have been affected by it – I know people who have died and I know people who are having problems," said Melody Wyman, an 18-year resident of Manchester.
I heard something similar from Corinna Cartier. “I lost my son to the disease – my son’s been dead three years. He was 25.”
For Daniel McGarth, it’s a little less personal, but still weighs heavy on his mind. “We have a gardener and every time he comes once a week, he’s always picking up needles,” McGarth said.
It’s difficult finding anyone in the city who doesn’t have some connection to this crisis. But that’s not surprising.
According to Andy Smith, who runs the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, more than 50 percent of voters in the Manchester area think the drug crisis is the number one issue. And it’s held that top spot for three years.
“Any candidate is going to get asked about it both from the reporters but they’re going to be asked about it from the voters themselves while they’re on the stump, at debates," Smith said. "This is a central issue – it’s a very important issue and they better have a well-thought out plan to deal with it.”
Many of those running in this year’s city elections are responding. A candidate for city alderman has proposed jail time for anyone who overdoses. Joyce Craig and Mayor Ted Gatsas, who are facing off in the mayoral race, both talk about the crisis at every campaign stop. Craig recently drafted a detailed 12-point plan on how to tackle this epidemic.
Gatsas, who’s seeking a fifth term, touts the progress he’s made on the frontlines by pointing to a program where the city's fire stations help addicts find treatment. That program known as Safe Station recently secured $150,000 in state money.
But not everyone in the city thinks enough progress has been made. At the farmer’s market, voters called for more prevention in schools, larger efforts to get drug dealers off the streets and more treatment options.
Forty-six-year-old Corinna Cartier is a former heroin addict. She’s lived in Manchester her entire life and has been in recovery for three years. Cartier said city officials keep saying ‘we can’t arrest our way out of this’ but she claimed that’s what they’re doing.
“They locked everyone up a year and a half ago and now everyone is getting let out and now look the spike’s happening again," Cartier said. "I called it because everyone that got a year and a half is out and still sick and suffering because you didn’t do anything about the problem.”
What’s really lacking, she said, is access to medication-assisted treatment and detox.
“We don’t need a bed – we don’t need a fire station and someone to talk to because your average sick and suffering addict on this street needs a place to go where they don’t have to use anymore but they’re not going to get sick."
But voters like Susan Labrie doesn’t think politicians can solve the problem.
“It’s going to be solved by the people who are intimately involved in the crisis – the people taking the drugs and the people who are charged with the responsibility for those people – it starts in the home,” Labrie said.
Whether government can solve it or not, the opioid epidemic will likely remain an issue on the campaign trail in New Hampshire well beyond 2017.