LEBANON — Those best-equipped to combat America’s opioid problems are often underfunded and hampered by red tape, while drug companies responsible for the damage continue to rake in cash, Democratic presidential contender Marianne Williamson said Wednesday during a campaign stop in Lebanon.
“I think there is a psychotherapeutic, psychopharmacological industrial complex, and billions of dollars are being made on some of the problems that you guys deal with every day,” Williamson, a best-selling spiritual author, told recovery specialists at Headrest, a nonprofit that offers substance abuse treatment.
Williamson, who has authored 12 books and is described as Oprah Winfrey’s spiritual guide, said addiction is often made worse by big companies in search of a big profit.
While Williamson came to Headrest with her own ideas about the opioid crisis, the boots on the ground at the treatment center raised doubts about several of her talking points.
While those gathered agreed they are undermanned and underfunded to handle New Hampshire’s growing opioid epidemic, one part of her platform — legalizing marijuana — likely wouldn’t make the situation better, attendees said. And they also disputed the notion that only corporate greed led to the overprescription of pain relief medication.
Vermont, Maine and Massachusetts have all legalized the recreational use of marijuana, but Cameron Ford, the executive director of Headrest, said he’s not convinced New Hampshire should follow suit.
“There’s just too much data that says it’s not a good thing, but I don’t know. Other states are doing it and they’re making money off it,” Ford told Williamson, who supports nationwide legalization of the drug.
“My opinion is we are so beyond worrying about marijuana. We are onto something so much bigger than marijuana,” she said, pointing to problems people face with heroin and fentanyl.
But Headrest’s Clinical Director Kathleen Russo pushed back, arguing that marijuana can be a gateway for those psychologically and genetically susceptible to addiction, just as alcohol, cigarettes and gambling can activate pleasure in the same parts of the brain.
“In our world (and) the folks we deal with, having another substance introduced is probably not a good thing,” Ford added. “We’re trying to get folks abstinent from everything.”
That might be true for an addict, Williamson said, “but it has never been my impression that marijuana or alcohol are anywhere near the gateway to opioid addiction.”
“Oh yeah” they are, the room responded, almost in unison.
The candidate also differed in opinion with treatment providers over causes of the opioid crisis. Greed from doctors, pharmacists and Purdue Pharma, the company that produced the opioid painkiller OxyContin, were allowed to do what they wanted while federal regulators stepped back, she said.
The recovery experts said that’s partially true, but society also was calling for drugs to manage pain and doctors often were misinformed about the affects of what they were prescribing
“It’s a perfect storm of all of a sudden ‘let’s take a pill’ ” to get better, Russo said.
Meanwhile, government doesn’t do enough to help, Williamson said. Small treatment centers like Headrest are left to fight for $50,000 grants while pharmaceutical companies receive million-dollar subsidies.
“Look how much money is made when the patient is given 10 pills instead of three pills,” Williamson told the group of nine Headrest and Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital employees. “There are so many millions of dollars made on turning human suffering into a profit, and they load it onto people like yourselves to handle the human devastation.”
The Headrest employees went on to tell Williamson how state cuts to treatment in the 1990s have made it difficult to find the right resources for people. They also spoke of the nonprofit’s suicide and crisis line, the only one accredited in New Hampshire.
The line, which can respond to anywhere between dozens of calls to hundreds in a given month and has seen calls skyrocket recently, receives no state funding, Ford said.
“Basically what you’re saying is you need more money from the state? That’s basically what you’re saying?” Williamson asked as she was preparing to leave. “What I’m hearing you say — and tell me if I’m wrong — is you know what to do and you could do it if you had enough cash?”
The question caused Ford to pause for a moment before replying with a definitive “yes.”
Tim Camerato can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3223.