Even as the candidates leave New Hampshire, the heroin epidemic burns on

The Takeaway
Donald Trump speaks after winning New Hampshire's GOP primary

Donald Trump mentioned New Hampshire's terrible heroin epidemic in his speech after winning New Hampshire's GOP primary on Tuesday night.

Jim Bourg/Reuters

The US is in the midst of a growing drug epidemic. Heroin use among young adults has doubled in the last decade, though the problem reaches individuals of every age group, gender and income level.

One state with an acute sense of this crisis is New Hampshire, where rates of drug overdoses and deaths have skyrocketed. The opiate epidemic has forced presidential candidates to talk about addiction during the campaign — Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Chris Christie have all discussed the issue. And Donald Trump, in a somber moment, mentioned it during his speech after winning the GOP primary Tuesday night.

On Sunday morning, two days before voters went to the poll, I met up with 29-year-old Zach Brewster in the parking lot of his church, the First Assembly of God in Auburn, just outside Manchester, New Hampshire. Zach is a recovering heroin addict that works with the Teen Challenge Christian Drug Rehabilitation Program.

We head on into the First Assembly of God. A choir and church band perform an upbeat song, and we're surrounded by people who know Zach. It’s a tight-knit group, and the church is a big part of his life — he credits his religious faith with his recovery.

During the service, two young addicts from Teen Challenge (they call them students) give testimony, and then they strip down and are baptized in a pool built right into the stage.

Heroin isn't new in New Hampshire, but its impact is unprecedented. In 2015, there were nearly 400 fatal overdoses from heroin and other opiates like fentanyl, and drug deaths have surpassed the number of traffic deaths in the Granite State. In addition to grief, the epidemic has also brought burdensome medical costs, incarceration and lost work for many families.

“The bottom line is the heroin is better. It's better quality. And the fentanyl, yeah, is part of it, but [heroin is] cheap now,” Zach says. “It's cheaper than a pack of cigarettes; it's easier to find than weed. As far as all the overdoses and stuff, it's just been a lot more potent over the last five years.”

There was one notable guest at this Sunday service: Texas Senator Ted Cruz. During the New Hampshire GOP debate the night before, Cruz told the audience about his sister, Miriam, who died of a pill overdose. Some candidates have offered specific policies to fight this drug crisis while others have offered empathy. On this morning, Cruz talked about his parents and their religious conversion.

“I was born as a small child that lived up in Canada — you may have heard that,” Cruz says, a comment that draws a laugh from the church congregation. “When I was a little boy, my parents were not Christians. And both of them were drinking far too much."

Even though it’s a Sunday morning, Pastor Garry Hamilton throws a bit of politics into his sermon — it is the season afterall.

“When I vote for him on Tuesday, I’m not just voting just for Senator Cruz, I'm voting for the Kingdom of God,” he says.

It’s fair to say that Zach's a big believer in the “Kingdom of God.” As to whether Ted Cruz represents it, well, Zach's not super into politics. He is, however, into sharing the full, unedited story of his addiction. In the car back to his parents’ house, Zach explains that he was using drugs at 12, buying cocaine at 17, and hooked on heroin at 20. He’s been arrested multiple times, and has even been charged with a couple of felonies that were knocked down to misdemeanors. He spent seven months in jail, and went through a near-death overdose.

"We've had a lot of people that we know die from heroin overdoses — they were either students in the program or family members of people in the program; family members of staff,” he says. “It's been tough."

Zach's parents,  Bill and Jo-Ann Brewster, are into politics. However, in the style of typical New Hampshirites, they’re not terribly interested in promises, or even help from politicians. Bill and Jo-Ann are both medical professionals — he’s a doctor and top executive at New Hampshire's biggest insurance company; she's a nurse. As sophisticated and connected as they are, they said it was a nightmare getting their insurance company — who they worked for at the time — to cover Zach's rehab. It wound up costing tens of thousands of dollars.

"You don't get a whole lot of support,” says Bill. “When you say, ‘I'm fighting to get my heroin-addicted child help,’ people go, ‘Oh, yeah? Ok.’ If you say, ‘I'm really fighting with this payer to get cancer therapy,’ they'd back you up [and say], ‘I’ll call my friend who's a senator.’”

The Brewsters eventually won an appeal against their insurance company, but money is only a small part of what they need. Again, the Brewsters don't think any of the candidates that are in New Hampshire right now are going to grind out a policy that makes the opiate problem go away. They're thinking more about the attention they can shine on the issue, so they’re happy that the candidates are at least talking about it.

“Years ago, the candidates probably would never have mentioned [heroin] because it would have been a black mark on them, but today people are coming out and accepting it and realizing it's not just that poor homeless kid on the street,” Jo-Ann says. “These are people. It's stealing all of our lives."

Back in the car, Zach worries about the political show moving on.

"It's a tough thing,” Zach says. “When everybody goes away, what's gonna happen? Who knows. I would like to hope that the attention will carry to the next state and the next state, and more and more people will start to pay more attention to it."

In the meantime, Zach says he's gearing up to transfer to full time college classes — he's gunning for medical school, and possibly a future in psychiatry. He says that even though he's very religious, he believes in what he calls the secular world of medicine and the power of hardcore behavioral therapy.

His main mission, he says, is to be a success and never be far from home. Long after the attention on New Hampshire fades away, he wants to be a model for other addicts, teaching them that they do have a shot at a real recovery, and real hope.

This story first aired as an interview on PRI's The Takeaway, a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.