New Hampshire’s Drug Problem Takes Center Stage in Tight Primaries

On the front lines of the Granite State’s heroin trade, the 2016 candidates’ promises to crack down on addiction and Mexican drug trafficking sound like pipe dreams.

MANCHESTER, NH - FEBRUARY 05:  Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L) looks on as Samantha, a patient at The Farnum Center alcohol and drug treatment facility, tells her story of recovering from heroin addiction on February 5, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire.  With less than one week to go before the New Hampshire primaries, Hillary Clinton continues to campaign throughout the state.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, NH - FEBRUARY 05: Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L) looks on as Samantha, a patient at The Farnum Center alcohol and drug treatment facility, tells her story of recovering from heroin addiction on February 5, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire. With less than one week to go before the New Hampshire primaries, Hillary Clinton continues to campaign throughout the state. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, NH - FEBRUARY 05: Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L) looks on as Samantha, a patient at The Farnum Center alcohol and drug treatment facility, tells her story of recovering from heroin addiction on February 5, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire. With less than one week to go before the New Hampshire primaries, Hillary Clinton continues to campaign throughout the state. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

MANCHESTER, New Hampshire — Officer Ryan Boyton was catching a quick midshift dinner at the police station, with an eye on the TV broadcast of the last Republican presidential debate before Tuesday’s primary, when an alert came over his radio to respond to another drug overdose.

Boyton headed to a modern housing complex where a young man with dark rings around his eyes eventually opened the front door to his warmly lit apartment. Boyton subtly put his shoe against the door as he asked about the call. “Oh yeah, that’s my fiancée,” said the young man, who explained she was no longer there. After making sure the woman was OK -- as she assured Boyton in a cell-phone call the man made from the apartment’s doorstep -- the officer urged the man to get help for her.

“You guys gotta work on it. There’s resources --” Boyton started.

MANCHESTER, New Hampshire — Officer Ryan Boyton was catching a quick midshift dinner at the police station, with an eye on the TV broadcast of the last Republican presidential debate before Tuesday’s primary, when an alert came over his radio to respond to another drug overdose.

Boyton headed to a modern housing complex where a young man with dark rings around his eyes eventually opened the front door to his warmly lit apartment. Boyton subtly put his shoe against the door as he asked about the call. “Oh yeah, that’s my fiancée,” said the young man, who explained she was no longer there. After making sure the woman was OK — as she assured Boyton in a cell-phone call the man made from the apartment’s doorstep — the officer urged the man to get help for her.

“You guys gotta work on it. There’s resources –” Boyton started.

“I know, I’m trying, it’s really tough with her,” the young man said. “It’s Russian roulette.”

Back at the police station, where the televised GOP debate was still droning on in the background, a fellow officer said he was well aware of the fiancée’s alleged heroin habit. He had responded to a similar overdose call just a week earlier, the officer told Boyton before turning back to the TV, where Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was promising to triple the force of the U.S. Border Patrol to solve the drug crisis in states like this one.

The overdose alert came just down the road from the site of last Saturday night’s debate, the final primetime face-off ahead of Tuesday’s “first in the nation” New Hampshire primary. From Cruz to Hillary Clinton, candidates from both parties have seized on the state’s drug epidemic to cull supporters.

It is fertile ground for such a pitch: An average of at least one New Hampshire resident is dying each day from drug overdose, according to the state’s chief medical examiner’s office. Drug fatalities have doubled since 2011 to at least 400 last year alone. And almost half of New Hampshire’s voting-age adults know someone who has used heroin, according to an October WMUR/University of New Hampshire poll.

At least four of the candidates in the 2016 field say they have directly felt the second- and third-order effects of addiction, sharing personal anecdotes to relate to voters at campaign stops across the state. Most have emphasized treatment, rather than incarceration, for nonviolent drug offenders. But some of the presidential hopefuls are also pairing that softer approach with discordantly strong rhetoric, seeking to sell themselves to Granite Staters as a commander in chief who will be aggressive in America’s ongoing drug war.

New Hampshire is on the front lines. Of the more than 400 drug deaths last year, the vast majority — just over 300 — overdosed on heroin, fentanyl, or a combination of the two, according to the medical examiner’s office. It’s a disproportionately high number, authorities said, for a small state with a population of 1.3 million.

“That’s like if you wake up tomorrow in D.C. or Manhattan and there’s 10,000 overdoses,” Jon DeLena, assistant special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s offices in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, told Foreign Policy.

Moreover, heroin represented less than 5 percent of drugs seized by authorities and analyzed by the State Police Forensic Lab a decade ago, and fentanyl was nowhere to be found in New Hampshire. Now, heroin represents more than 20 percent of drugs tested by the lab, and fentanyl, which didn’t show until 2013, represents 12 percent.

So far this year, 38 people in New Hampshire have died of suspected overdose deaths. At a Monday visit to the state crime lab, a growing backlog of 3,700 case files covered direly needed lab space.

Federal officials blame Mexican drug networks, namely the Sinaloa cartel, for supplying almost all of the heroin and fentanyl that’s ravaging New Hampshire. Even the U.S. case against the recently captured Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the Sinaloa boss thought to be the most powerful drug kingpin in the world, has roots in New Hampshire, where his cartel’s distributors were nabbed trying to establish a network.

Clinton, the Democratic former U.S. secretary of state, has emphasized criminal justice reform and greater investment in treatment to combat the drug war. Addiction, she says, is “a disease, not a moral failing — and we must treat it as such.” Her Democratic challenger, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is leading Clinton by more than 13 points headed into the primary, has called for a “radical” change to the way U.S. health care addresses addiction, and has similarly emphasized rehabilitation rather than incarceration.

Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard who is only pulling about 4.8 percent of Republican support in New Hampshire, says drug addiction shouldn’t be criminalized. “I buried a child to drug addiction,” she said in an early GOP debate, speaking of her stepdaughter, who overdosed. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush used New Hampshire’s backdrop to begin sharing the struggles of his daughter, Noelle, years after they were made painfully public; she faced felony charges for attempting to fill a fraudulent Xanax prescription and later went to jail when crack cocaine was found in her shoe.

Bush is hinging his campaign on a strong finish in the Republican primary. So is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who saw a spike in the polls here after a viral video of an October town hall meeting in Belmont, N.H., where he spoke emotionally about the power of addiction to describe his mother’s death from lung cancer and a friend’s dependency on painkillers. His numbers have since cooled, but he’s still seen as in play to win the primary.

During last Saturday’s GOP debate, Christie said he was prepared to pursue New Hampshire’s drug suppliers into Mexico. “But we need to do more,” he said. Cruz also was pressed on what he would do — and why he was absent from a Jan. 27 Senate hearing on the drug crisis. Asked how he plans to convince law enforcement he understands the severity of the drug epidemic, Cruz said he, too, knows addiction “first-hand”: His half-sister, Miriam, died of a drug overdose in 2011.

But Cruz’s tone suggests he seeks a markedly more punitive cure to the crisis.

At an elementary school last Friday in Salem, N.H., Cruz described in detail how Miriam resisted help to steer her away from drugs, talking about how she stole money from him to “feed her habits,” and “made a series of wrong decisions.” Eventually, Cruz said, he gave up.

Then he shifted abruptly from his intimate anecdote to his solution for curbing the drug epidemic: Build a wall, triple border patrol forces, and end “sanctuary cities” and benefits for undocumented immigrants to “have a major role stopping, or at least slowing down significantly, the illegal drug trade,” Cruz said.

The “build a wall” approach to New Hampshire’s drug epidemic aligns Cruz politically with Donald Trump, who is leading the state’s GOP polls. As early as in his campaign announcement, Trump has linked the losing U.S. drug war to illegal immigration. Mexicans, he said, are “bringing drugs” into the United States. “They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

“I’m the first person that said, ‘Build a wall,’” Trump said during last Saturday’s debate. “But I mean, a real wall, not a toy wall like they have right now. A real wall. And you’ll solve lots of problems.”

Trump and Cruz are trying hard to fit the drug crisis in New Hampshire into a neat narrative about border security and immigration that conservatives have been crafting for years. They say the Obama administration, Democrats in general, and so-called “Washington cartel” Republicans are refusing to enforce immigration laws. That fueled a conservative push to block immigration reform — and more recently, immigration from the war-torn Middle East — until the southern U.S. border with Mexico and other ports of entry are secure, an argument that gained strength with public anxiety over terrorism.

A quarter of New Hampshire’s voters see drug abuse as the state’s most significant problem — the first time in almost eight years that any other issue has been cited by a plurality of voters as more pressing than jobs and the economy, according to the WMUR/UNH poll. A majority of New Hampshire voters believe the government should be spending more to fight heroin use.

But in the specific task of picking a president, a Monmouth University poll last month found the drug crisis hardly registers compared to national security and terrorism. One-third of likely Republican primary New Hampshire voters identify national security and terrorism as their No. 1 issue in electing a commander-in-chief, followed by jobs and the economy at 20 percent. The state’s Democratic voters flip those presidential priorities, with roughly 30 percent citing jobs and the economy as their top concern and ranking national security and terrorism second, at around 15 percent.

The political rhetoric on the campaign trail frustrates federal and local law enforcement officials who have been on the drug war’s frontlines long before election season.

They say the fight needs to focus more on prevention and treatment for addiction. They’re not hopeful Washington’s attention to drug addiction — and the trafficking that brought the narcotics to New Hampshire — will continue beyond Tuesday’s primaries. And based on the solutions that so far have been touted on the campaign trail, nor are they confident the next president will resolve it.

Manchester’s Police Department, already working overtime to deal with drug-related crime and overdoses — 10 in the last week alone, including two deaths — is stretched even thinner right now to provide security for the candidates. The drugs they’re fighting may have been made in Mexico, but the police officers roll their eyes at calls to “just build a wall.” They know the drugs will always find a way into their community so long as there’s demand.

The 2011 indictment against Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and seven others is short enough for the federal clerk’s office for the U.S. District Court in Concord to read it over the phone. It’s just one count, of possession and conspiracy to distribute controlled substances, including heroin, methamphetamine, and 1,000 or more kilograms of cocaine.

Guzman, who was recently captured in Mexico, faces potential extradition to the United States. Though New Hampshire is an unlikely pick for where he’d stand trial, federal prosecutor Don Feith is going to try to bring him here.

“There aren’t many cases like that that come along,” Feith told FP, “so when it comes you take it.”

Guzman heads the Sinaloa cartel, which has sought to establish new drug distribution routes from South America to Europe, Canada, and the United States. Federal agents working undercover as drug bosses met with Sinaloa representatives across the United States, including in New Hampshire in 2011. The cartel offered to ship thousands of kilos of cocaine to northeastern U.S. ports and Europe, a deal confirmed by a face-to-face meeting with Guzman himself in the mountains of Sinaloa, Mexico. A shipment of more than 346 kilograms of cocaine, worth millions of dollars, was seized at a Spanish port in 2012, and several of the defendants were extradited to New Hampshire.

While the case was primarily about cocaine, Feith, an assistant U.S. attorney who until recently served as the acting head of the federal prosecutor’s office in New Hampshire, says Sinaloa and other drug networks have used that model to build the burgeoning heroin market in the Northeast.

The Sinaloa distributors keyed into a growing problem in the United States that saw high rates of addiction to prescription painkillers, largely due to overprescription. Given the pills’ expense, people began turning to other cheaper opioids, such as heroin, for a similar high. That’s where the Sinaloa cartel saw an opportunity, several officials told FP, and began setting up networks north of Boston and New York, where they already had distribution centers. Mexico’s opium production increased by 50 percent in 2014 in what officials say is largely due to insatiable demand for heroin in states like New Hampshire.

Manchester Police Chief Nick Willard said doctors in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont rank among the nation’s top 5 for overprescribing pain medication. “There’s a correlation,” Willard, an outspoken critic of Washington’s failure to stem New Hampshire’s drug epidemic, told FP in an interview Friday.

The drugs are smuggled from Mexico in tunnels, cars, and planes — few of which are deterred by a wall. Guzman even claimed to have submarines at his disposal. The drugs are hidden in everything from art frames to shoe heels to car batteries, and distributed to lower-level dealers in tightly packed plastic baggies known as “fingers” that hold roughly 300 doses.

“If you can think of it, they’ve done it,” DEA spokesman Rusty Payne said of the smuggling tactics.

Federal and state officials say the drugs’ quick distribution indicates business is booming. “They’re not bringing it into the state and putting in on a shelf — they’re turning it over,” Col. Bobby Quinn, head of the State Police, told FP. Still, their customers are dying at an alarming rate. Enough drugs were seized last year, he said, to provide a dose for each of New Hampshire’s residents.

“When we experience these huge increases in drug consumption, regardless of what drug it is, it’s a bullseye we put on ourselves,” Payne said.

Authorities believe the spike is largely due to the increasing presence of fentanyl, a drug that is nearly impossible to distinguish from heroin. Though it’s equally expensive to produce, fentanyl relies on chemicals that are easier for cartels to obtain — especially from China — instead of poppy yields. Fentanyl is also 40 to 50 times more potent than heroin, and 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to New Hampshire crime lab Director Tim Pifer. He told FP that a single grain of fentanyl is the equivalent to an entire hit of heroin.

Payne declined to discuss the 2016 candidates’ focus on security to combat the drug crisis. But he noted: “It’s about addiction.… We’ve gotta reduce demand.”

“We’re cops, we go after bad guys, but you’ve got to have a multifaceted approach,” Payne said.

No matter how much is taken off the streets, the crackdown has little effect on the flood of readily-available drugs, Willard said. “We need to shrink the pool of addiction,” he said. “That’s how we’re going to stem this tide — it’s not going be through law enforcement efforts.”

He laughs and covers his face with both hands when discussing whether a big border wall would stop New Hampshire’s drug crisis, as Trump and Cruz claim. The police chief voiced respect for Trump but slammed Cruz for skipping a Senate hearing where Willard testified about New Hampshire’s drug issue, even as the Texan uses it as a stump pitch in the state.

“It has nothing to do with walls,” he says. “That is such a silly statement.”

“People can climb over walls, people can go under walls, people can fly over walls. The Great Wall of China didn’t keep the Mongols out,” he said. “That is just something that sounds good, is good fodder … but that’s not border security.”

Photo credit: Justin Sullivan/Staff

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.