It's getting worse.

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Trump Means Change to This Addiction Fighter

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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It's hard to imagine someone like Melissa Crews of Bedford, New Hampshire, voting for Donald Trump in the presidential election. But the former Democratic voter says that's what she intends to do.

I first met Crews during the primary campaign, in February, when New Hampshire was at the center of candidates' attention. The state's heroin epidemic was a big campaign issue, candidates were doing their best to show interest, and Crews was a co-founder and the board chairman of HOPE for New Hampshire, a nonprofit then beginning to build a local network of recovery centers. 

The first center in Manchester got a lot of attention. Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Bernie Sanders visited it. Crews, the organization's public face, is socially liberal and had always voted Democrat, though her husband, Andy Crews, chief executive officer of AutoFair Automotive Group, was prominent in state Republican circles.

To her surprise, she found that she liked the Republican candidates better. They were more willing to talk about their own experiences with friends' and family members' addiction, and more sympathetic to her approach: using recovering addicts to help others lead sober lives. Bush was, according to her, the most knowledgeable and the most willing to listen. He even made a donation to HOPE and didn't publicize it.

Seven months later, HOPE has grown from one to six recovery centers, its staff has increased from five to 30 workers, and it's had about 15,000 more visits from people with substance abuse problems. Crews, though, is no longer on the HOPE board. She resigned after some other board members criticized her for appearing in an attack ad against Governor Maggie Hassan, a Democrat. In the ad, she wasn't speaking as a HOPE officer, just as a recovery counselor: Crews is a former alcoholic who has been sober ("in recovery," says she, a believer that this is a lifelong process) for 22 years. Still, her colleagues believed that taking a political position could hurt the group.

In the ad, Crews complained about Hassan's veto of the state budget, saying the cost of her administration's "entrenchment and bureaucracy is 429 people dying a year." That number was New Hampshire's 2015 opioid-overdose death toll. When I asked Crews, who still volunteers at HOPE and whose family had bought two buildings for the organization, why she took her stand, she talked angrily about trying to work on a task force set up by the state to battle the drug epidemic. 

"There were all these meetings, too many for us, the boots on the ground, to attend," she said. "Eventually, I stopped going, and only people from advocacy groups who were paid to do it were still there."

Her task had sought state funding for HOPE, which has raised about $1.5 million in private donations so far. She had no luck. She felt bureaucrats were telling her how to run the centers.

"They were trying to quantify things," she said. "We could just give them our general data. It's all anonymous, and it's impossible to pin down the amount of time we spend with each person." Crews added that under the state administration's approach, treatment centers were forced to compete for funding with recovery centers, instead of encouraged to work together.

Hassan called the ad "misleading." The budget she'd vetoed would have cut funding for addiction treatment and recovery by $3.3 million compared with what the governor had asked for. The governor's version of the budget also provided for an addiction-related Medicaid extension, which Crews said would do little good because all it did was fund the "evaluation" of 40,000 potential patients.

Hassan is giving up the governor's post this year to run for the U.S. Senate against Kelly Ayotte, the incumbent Republican senator whom Crews and her husband have backed.

I asked Crews why she believed that Republicans would do more for her cause than Democrats. After all, the former candidates had not done anything for HOPE since the primary campaign, although Bush had referred several people in need of help. Trump had never shown interest and had proved hard to get close to when he was in the state.

"He seems a risk-taker," Crews said. "And I know we have to take risks to change things. Trump is a businessman, and if his approach is anything like my husband's, he'll try to get the right people into the room and get things done. I can't see how this can happen with Hillary Clinton. She's the status quo. When she was here, she just didn't dig deep enough. She met with the middle level, the advocacy groups, and she thought that was low enough for her."

Crews is not hiding that it's a leap of faith on her part. "I just hope the Republicans will be better, if only because they believe more in private initiative," she said. "Perhaps all government is like what I've seen so far." That makes her one of many people voting for Trump because he stands for "change," whatever that change may be.

She has a good reason for wanting change. Despite all the attention showered on New Hampshire's drug epidemic at the early stages of the presidential campaign, and despite activists' best efforts, it's getting worse. In Manchester, the state's largest city, the number of overdoses recorded by the city authorities has increased in January through August to 536, including 71 lethal ones, from 466, including 57 lethal ones, in 2015. In February, 14 people died from overdoses, the most ever in a month.

(Removes erroneous description of Manchester as the state capital in last paragraph of article published Sept. 15.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net