A subject matter normally taboo in polite society — discussion of substance-abuse problems in one's family or group of friends — is suddenly topic du jour among Republican presidential candidates. And their personal stories are a pretty notable development in the quick-moving evolution of how we talk about drugs.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush is the most recent 2016 GOP hopeful to open up about his family's most personal struggles. In an interview published Thursday with the Huffington Post in New Hampshire, he delved into an unusual amount of detail about his daughter Noelle's battle with drug addiction.
"She went through hell," he said, according to the Huffington Post's Scott Conroy and Jon Strauss. He repeated as much in an interview with MSNBC later Thursday.
Also on Thursday, Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) shared on CNN that time he tried to save his half sister, who struggled with addiction her whole life, from a crack house.
Cruz's and Bush's candor follows a well-received speech going viral this week, also published by the Huffington Post, of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie sharing his law school friend's tragic tale of prescription pill addiction.
"By every measure we define success, this guy had it," Christie said. "He's a drug addict. But he couldn't get help. And he's dead."
And one of former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina's break-out moments in GOP's September primary debate came when she solemnly and sternly jumped into a discussion of criminal justice reform, sharing how "My husband, Frank, and I buried a child to drug addiction."
"Drug addiction is an epidemic, and it is taking too many of our young people," she said of her step-daughter. "I know this sadly from personal experience."
Each candidate was making a slightly different point in sharing his or her family's struggles. Bush's was that he, too, can empathize with drug addiction. Christie was urging Americans to stop jailing and start treating addicts. Fiorina had a warning that marijuana can be as dangerous as alcohol. In revealing his pain, Cruz also revealed a different side of the normally bombastic campaigner.
But in simply talking about the havoc drugs have played in their lives at this specific moment in time, Bush, Christie and Fiorina are at the forefront of a subtle but noticeable shift in the American psyche about how we think about drug addiction — that it's not the addict's fault.
They're riding the wave of cultural change built up by a confluence of factors.
Thanks to changing attitudes about marijuana and reports of crowded jails, Americans largely agree that the war on drugs is a failed policy. A 2014 Pew Research Center survey found 67 percent of Americans think the government should focus more on providing treatment to drug users rather than prosecuting them.
At almost exactly the same time, the once-underground, mostly lower-income scourge of opiate addiction surged to the surface, crippling wealthy suburbs in places like New Hampshire and New Jersey. The face of drug addiction was no longer a homeless person in a city alleyway, but a stay-at-home soccer mom who became addicted to oxycodone after her doctor prescribed it for back pain.
Things have gotten so bad in New Hampshire that The Washington Post's Katie Zezima reports that the state’s medical examiner there has called heroin abuse “the Ebola of Northern New England.”
In 2014, the state's recorded opiate deaths made up about 90 percent of its drug overdose deaths.
(And don't let the dip fool you: Experts caution it's not necessarily a marker of fewer overdoses but rather due to successful reviving of patients who have overdosed.)
The candidates themselves are playing a role in this by urging Americans to — or in Christie's case, demanding that we — de-stigmatize drug addiction and rethink the way we treat it. It's probably not a coincidence that they're speaking up as the center of the nation's heroin epidemic, New Hampshire, is a must-win primary state for candidates like Bush and Christie.
And it's not just a Republican issue. Criminal justice reform is one of the few issues where both parties can find common ground these days. In June, Democratic 2016 front-runner Hillary Clinton described opiate addiction as a "hidden ... quiet epidemic." Her main challenger, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), is out in front on legalizing recreational marijuana, which he says will help even out America's lopsided drug policy. A bipartisan criminal justice reform bill is advancing in the Senate.
Retooling America's approach to drugs and stemming its out-of-control opiate epidemic is going to be a public- and health-policy challenge of epic proportions.
But when politicians at the highest level are out in front of the issue, there's a chance that Washington just might come together to do something about it.