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Monday, December 5, 2016

Of all the GOP presidential candidate soliloquies that began with “I’m the only one on this stage …,” one such story actually hit home Wednesday night.

It was shared by Carly Fiorina. It wasn’t a boast or a ploy to make herself stand out in the pack of male candidates. Rather, she described the personal pain of losing a child to drugs and alcohol.

“I very much hope that I am the only person on this stage who can say this, but I know there are millions of Americans out there who will say the same thing,” she began. “My husband, Frank, and I buried a child to drug addiction.”

Fiorina made the comment during a wide-ranging discussion about the war on drugs, medical marijuana, and incarceration rates for drug-related offenses. There was also the highly tweetable quote by Jeb Bush, admitting he smoked pot 40 years ago, a confession he made with an apology to his mother.

But that was the only light-hearted moment. This segment of the debate is notable because it clearly had the GOP candidates understanding drug addiction as a medical affliction first and foremost, more than just a crime.

Bravo for Fiorina’s candor.

There likely isn’t a family in America that hasn’t in some way been affected by addiction, be it to alcohol, prescription drugs, or street drugs.

The life of Lori Ann Fiorina was such an existence. Her stepmother detailed it in her book, Rising to the Challenge. The former Hewlett-Packard chief had helped raise Lori from the age of 6.

The family suspected Lori drank heavily in college. Like so many others, she apparently never made the crossover from binge drinking as a co-ed to a more controlled relationship with alcohol as an adult. That’s a sad, common story in America. And it’s not discussed enough, outside of afternoon talk shows anyway. Certainly, it’s not regularly addressed by political candidates.

For Fiorina’s stepdaughter, a post-graduation job in pharmaceutical sales apparently then that led to a prescription pill addiction and, finally, complications with bulimia. She died at 35.

It’s not the kind of topic many people like to discuss, much less political candidates. Such is the shame that is often attached to having a loved one who suffers from addiction.

The topic came up in the debate in questions to Sen. Rand Paul about his support for the legalization of marijuana and to Gov. Chris Christie about his stated opposition to it. Christie flatly stated, “I think the war on drugs has been a failure.” No one objected.

Sen. Paul noted: “The federal government has gone too far. The war on drugs has had a racial outcome.” He then pointed to the hypocrisy that people with more privilege use drugs and escape incarceration, while for too many young black people and Latinos in urban cities that’s not the case. They wind up with criminal records.

No one disputed that.

Fiorina, in fact, noted that two-thirds of incarcerated Americans are in jail or prison for nonviolent, often drug-related offenses. Candidates seemed to agree that drug courts, which route low-level and first time offenders to treatment instead of jail time, are a good idea.

All of this took place in the hallowed hall of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, which calls to mind a far different day, that of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign and the buildup to the war on drugs.

In 1986, Congress passed and Reagan endorsed a law that imposed a draconian five-year minimum sentence for those convicted in federal court for possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine. Notoriously, the same minimum sentence for powder cocaine (which white drug users overwhelmingly preferred) was 500 grams. The prison population of the United States exploded over the next two decades.

Getting America to move away from mass incarceration as a social panacea and toward prevention and treatment of addiction will be a daunting task. It may take a generation to accomplish — if it’s even possible.

There is too much money to be made in the penal industry, now a landscape of for-profit prison companies and powerful prison-guard lobby groups. And treatment programs entail upfront expenses that politicians and voters may balk at, although their beneficial impact on society and the economy are indisputable.

“Drug addiction is an epidemic,” Fiorina said pointedly to end her remarks on the subject. “And it is taking too many of our young people. I know this sadly from personal experience.”

That Republicans get this is one of the few signs of hope in an otherwise dismal primary season.

(Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via email at [email protected])

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