Wooed by Trump's promises, opioid advocates now worry they were all empty

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Story highlights

  • Candidate Trump connected with New Hampshire voters on opioid crisis
  • Now advocates are asking what President Trump is going to do about it

Washington (CNN)Erin Canterbury had voted for New Hampshire Democrats for over a decade. Then she met Donald Trump at a roundtable on the state's opioid epidemic, where she heard the Republican candidate talk about his own family's history with addiction.

She trusted Trump and, withstanding vocal criticism from her friends, proudly backed him over Hillary Clinton.
Months into Trump's presidency, though, Canterbury and a host of other opioid advocates in New Hampshire feel duped by the President, not only shocked that his administration has done little to combat an issue he promised to address, but worried that he has done the opposite and is now risking gains advocates have worked hard to make.
    "I expected him to do something," Canterbury said. "I didn't expect it to be fixed, but I expected something."
    Trump, then a political neophyte, kicked off his presidential campaign in New Hampshire with sweeping promises about combating the state's opioid epidemic, a nagging problem that can be felt across the Granite State. The boisterous businessman pledged to boost local clinics, help those who are already hooked on opioids and stop the flow of drugs coming into the state.
    The issue was so important that days before the 2016 election, when time is at its most precious, Trump headlined an opioid roundtable where he met face-to-face with those directly impacted by the issue.
    "I just want to let the people of New Hampshire know that I'm with you 1000%, you really taught me a lot," he said before promising to help people who "are so seriously addicted."
    But months into Trump's presidency, Canterbury and others feel the President has failed to do what he promised.
    "He hasn't done anything thus far," said the 39-year-old mother of two, who is almost seven years sober after getting addicted to prescription painkillers. "I don't want to say I completely regret it. But he hasn't done anything."
    These feelings have the chance to undermine Trump with the base of energized voters that catapulted him from a reality TV board room to the Oval Office. A series of post-2016 studies, including one released by researchers at Pennsylvania State University, found that Trump outperformed other Republicans in both rural and urban counties with the highest drug, alcohol and suicide mortality rates.
    Trump won 18 of the top 25 states with the highest number of drug overdoses in 2015, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
    And a recent study from Public Religion Research Institute found that white working-class voters, a demographic key to Trump's base and electoral success, were not only more likely to be impacted by the opioid crisis, but also a majority of them said it was a "major problem" in their community.
    Opioid overdoses have reached epidemic levels, according to the CDC. A study from the agency found that 25% of all drug overdose deaths were related to heroin in 2015. That number was just 6% in 1999.
    Concerns in the opioid community started months ago when the Trump-backed health care plan proposed ending the requirement that addiction services and mental health treatment be covered under Medicaid in the 31 states that expanded the health care program. The Republican plan, a version of which passed the House earlier this month, would leave it up to states to decide whether to cover drug treatment -- a decision experts said would put the most vulnerable at far greater risk.
    "The bill is an absolute betrayal of what Trump represented on the campaign trail," Kraig Moss, whose son died of an overdose, told CNN in March. "I feel betrayed."
    Then, earlier this month, a draft memo obtained by CNN on Trump's 2018 budget brought to light plans to virtually eliminate the Office of National Drug Control Policy by slashing their funding by 94%.
    That, said Tym Rourke, a treatment advocate who serves as chairman of New Hampshire's commission on the issue, has created widespread unease because the memo proposed cutting the Drug-Free Communities Support program, a federal program that has provided grants to fight opioids in cities and towns like Raymond, Nashua, Rochester and Dover.
    "Uncertainty is sort of the mood of the movement here in New Hampshire," he said. "We are working to build our state's capacity, to build the workforce, but it is hard to do that in a moment where the services we have built could potentially be at risk."
    The biggest concern, Rourke said, is that Trump's actions could mean local efforts "may have to slow down, stop or even see a rollback of our progress."
    Most recently, opioid advocates who favor treatment over jail time for abusers grew concerned when Attorney General Jeff Sessions instructed federal prosecutors to charge suspect with the most serious offense you can prove, including drug crimes.
    Joe Hannon, a former Republican in the New Hampshire House of Representatives who introduced Trump at the opioid roundtable that he attended days before the 2016 election, said he is particularly worried at some of the rhetoric coming out of Sessions' Justice Department.
    "Enforcement has not been very effective up too this point," he said. "We have had a war on drugs for quite some time now and it is not getting better with what we are doing so I am not sure the same old approach is the answer."
    Overall, Hannon said Trump's actions are "a little concerning" but that it was "too soon to tell" how effective the president will be on fighting opioid abuse. But on enforcement, the lawmaker worried.
    Hannon briefly met Sessions at a picnic before the 2016 election, where he talked to him about drug enforcement. When Sessions was named attorney general, Hannon said he was "a little concerned there was going to be a heavier hand as far as going after people suffering from substance abuse." And now those fears appear to be coming true.
    Rourke agree with Hannon. "I do hear concern in the recovery community on whether we going to go back into the days where drug use was seen as crime and not a disease," he said.
    Despite these moves, the White House has tried to spur action on the issue from Washington. After signing an executive order establishing a commission to fight opioids earlier this year, the Trump administration tasked New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to lead the bipartisan group, which included Democrats Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina and former Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, along with Republican Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts.
    "I think when it comes to the opioid crisis, the President, both during the campaign, the transition and now as president, has made it very clear of his commitment to figuring out how we can address this crisis that plagues so many," White House press secretary Sean Spicer said.
    Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price visited New Hampshire, Virginia and West Virginia last week to talk opioids, and a White House official downplayed any budgetary moves the administration has considered on fighting opioids, arguing that the 2018 budget "is still under review and nothing the media is reporting reflects any finalized White House policy."
    "The Executive Branch commitment to fighting the drug problem goes well beyond a single office," the official said. "There are more than 90 programs across 16 departments and the Judicial Branch."
    But treatment advocates are largely unmoved but the commission.
    "If he had really asked and listened to anybody close to the issue, they would tell him that he has done everything wrong so far," said Dean Lemrire, a recovery advocate who used to be in treatment for alcohol and heroin addiction.
    Though Lemrire didn't vote for Trump -- saying he reluctantly backed Clinton -- he is more upset that he meets so many people who did who are now upset.
    "I am bummed out that he is threatening the health care that the people who are hardest hit," he said. "The people who are hardest hit are his voters, the people who are hardest hit by this epidemic are his voters."
    Canterbury, now worried that Trump was just being "politically expedient" when he promised to fight opioids, expressed similar concerns.
    Getting treatment changed Canterbury's life. She now works as an advocate for drug treatment and wants everyone who needs it to have the experience she had. She described the epidemic as the "biggest issue" in her life and her primary reason for backing Trump is 2016.
    "I don't want to talk to another mom who has lost their child," she said.
    To her, Trump seemed to care about the issue more than Clinton and that was what won her over in the end.
    "Voting for him, was a huge step out of what I truly usually do and believe," she said. "It was a stretch for me."
    What sealed the deal, Canterbury said, was when Trump, during his roundtable before Election Day, told the group about his brother Fred's struggle with alcohol, a fight that eventually killed him at the age of 43 in 1981.
    The tragic lesson left an impact on the President, who long ago swore off alcohol.
    "He seemed like he cared," she said. "He said if he won he would bring us all to the White House to talk about it. It sounded like he cared."
    But now Canterbury is questioning that instinct, worried that the man for whom she crossed party lines to vote was just trying to win her over.
    "I feel like this issue now goes on the back burner for him," she said. "But he needs to know, 'no, we aren't going to shut up about this in New Hampshire.'"
    Correction: This story was updated to reflect that Tym Rourke is currently the chairman of New Hampshire's commission and Dean Lemrire is no longer in treatment.