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Bush Analysis: Focus on Advancing Treatment and Criminal Justice Reform, Guided by Family Experience

January 14, 2016

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Governor Jeb Bush in front of #129aDay backdrop

Governor Jeb Bush began his remarks at the Addiction Policy Forum’s New Hampshire event by relaying to the audience his personal experience with addiction. He described the plight of his daughter, Noelle, who became entangled with prescription drugs and cocaine and ultimately landed her in jail. Bush described the heartbreak he felt at watching her suffer, especially given the elevated press scrutiny she received as a sitting governor’s daughter.

Reflecting on that moment, Bush said, “the pain that you feel when you have a loved one who has addiction challenges and kind of spirals out of control is something that is shared with a whole lot of people.” This empathy founded in personal experience has shaped Bush’s message on addiction; he declared it a “national calling” and something on which we must do better.


Bush detailed how he approached addiction and drugs in Florida during his time as governor with a “comprehensive and coordinated strategy” from “day one.” Describing the strategy as a “bottom­up approach,” he began detailing how 67 community drug prevention coalitions were organized and strengthened. These multi­sector entities involved the whole community (from schools and businesses to law enforcement and faith­based organizations) to look at local data and develop and oversee the implementation of community­specific prevention strategies tailored towards youth. Not only did they work to reduce the availability of all drugs – from alcohol to prescription and illicit drugs – they worked to change social norms about substance use.


Asked about substance abuse treatment, Bush spoke of the most current science and demonstrated that he knows that addiction is a brain disease, not a moral failing on the part of the individual or family. This understanding necessarily prescribes a certain set of policy options – options that Bush did not shy away from and demonstrated that he embraced in Florida (“We expanded drug treatment inside of our prisons.”) He also advocated for enhanced access to treatment for people with substance use disorders, showing his displeasure with the idea of waitlists for over­burdened treatment facilities.

Governor Bush also described the need to constantly adapt treatment facilities and treatment practices so they are up­to­date on the most current research, while also making it clear that our federal programs need to be more outcomes­focused. If elected to the presidency, Bush pledged that “there will be an outcome measurement” for federal programs to help people with substance use disorders.

Recovery & Stigma

Bush also discussed the need to talk about addiction together as a community in order to begin to reduce the stigma, something people with substance use disorders face daily and prevents many from seeking treatment. Of stigma, Bush said that “this should be an uplifting cause... We need to eliminate the stigma and the barriers so more and more people get engaged in this, where they are not embarrassed to say that I have an illness, that I now am in the road of recovery on or that I have a child who has a problem. If we do that we fulfill one of the great promises of this country which is imagine a United States with three hundred plus million people where everybody can reach their God­given abilities. And drug addiction is one of the things that holds people back... If we can deal with this, we can solve any problem in the world. And we’ll lead the world.”

Criminal Justice Reform

On the criminal justice front, Bush reiterated his position that the federal government needs to be very tough on drug dealers and traffickers and desperately needs to tighten border security in order to clamp down on the amount of heroin coming into the country. However, he believes that the U.S. has to be a “second chance nation” and that this philosophy should apply directly to people with substance use disorders within the criminal justice system. Bush stated that the most onerous criminal provisions of federal law – including some mandatory minimum sentences – should be reevaluated as they pertain to low­level, non­violent drug users, saying that “we have to have restorative justice in that regard.”

He spoke of support for innovations regarding the interaction of people with substance use disorders and the criminal justice system, such as the use of drug courts. He described Noelle’s graduation from a drug court in Orlando as “an extraordinary event” and one of the best moments of his life. This line was met with applause, at which Bush shared his hope to expand the use of drug courts across the nation’s federal districts (he pointed out that the nation’s first drug court was founded in Miami, that he had “expanded it across the entire state [Florida]” during his time as governor and would be completely capable of bringing them to scale at the federal level). Elaborating on drug courts, Bush said, “we need to be a second chance nation. We need to recognize that restoring people’s chance to be able to live a life of purpose and meaning doesn’t just deal with the illness of drug addiction. It also deals with giving them a chance to get a job and to do the other things, and drug courts provide that opportunity... That’s how America works at its very best.”

Additionally, Bush indicated his commitment to restoring the cabinet­level position of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. This comment was likely meant to symbolize of the seriousness with which he sees the need to deal with the scourge of drugs and addiction and the conviction with which he would deal with it if elected to office.


At New Hampshire Forum on Addiction and the Heroin Epidemic, Bush highlighted the need for a comprehensive response to addiction and the heroin epidemic. He presented a range of key principles that included a focus on prevention and community coalitions; concern that not enough people are getting treatment for their disease; recovery cannot simply be bought but takes time and investment; the need to address demand for heroin as well as supply; and how the criminal justice system must work for the benefit of people with substance use disorders, not against them.

“We need to make this a much higher priority than we have,” Bush said. 

Jack Czerwinski