Addiction and the 2020 Presidential Race

By Dr. Lynn Webster, PNN Columnist

I found the recent story about Hunter Biden's drug and alcohol problems disturbing, not because he has an addiction — there's no shame in that — but because of the way the media tiptoes around the problem.

There seems be some reluctance to discuss Hunter's problem because of the way it may affect his father – former Vice President Joe Biden – and Biden’s bid for the presidency in 2020. To me, this illustrates a serious barrier to addressing the terrible disease of addiction.

Drugs, Politicians and Their Families

Marijuana is not considered a hard drug today, but it was considered a serious drug of abuse 27 years ago, when President Bill Clinton admitted he had used it. The stigma attached to using marijuana at the time was such that he disingenuously claimed he didn't inhale.

Of course, Clinton wasn't the only president who used or abused chemicals. Nor was he the only president whose reputation took a hit when his drug use was exposed to the public:

President Richard Nixon was reported to have an alcohol problem that worsened as his presidency neared its end.

President George W. Bush reportedly used cocaine in his youth and admitted “drinking too much.” ABC News even polled voters to find out whether his cocaine use might affect their willingness to vote for him.

President Barack Obama admitted that he used marijuana and cocaine. He was also a cigarette smoker with a nicotine addiction, and dealt with media inquiries about his attempts to quit throughout his presidency.


Hunter Biden is not the only family member of a presidential candidate with addiction.

Jeb Bush's daughter, Noelle Bush, had a drug problem. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s daughter, Chiara de Blasio, abused alcohol and drugs while dealing with depression. Sen. Amy Klobuchar's father has struggled with alcohol his whole life. And President Trump’s brother, Fred Trump, Jr., died of complications related to alcoholism, which contributes to an estimated 88,000 deaths per year.

What Do Candidates Know?

Clearly, the endemic nature of addiction in our culture means that we should be interested in how the candidates deal with the presence of drugs in their lives. Are they able to talk openly about drug use instead of letting it remain a dark and shameful secret? Are they compassionate and supportive of family members who struggle?

To what extent do they personally use drugs and alcohol in daily life? And by extension, how well do they cope with stress? These are relevant, appropriate questions for candidates auditioning for a job that impacts the entire world.

It would be inappropriate to vote for a candidate solely on the basis of whether or not their loved ones struggle with addiction. But one criteria we can use for voting is a candidate’s positions on the critical issue of addiction in America. Here is how I would evaluate a candidate:

1) How much awareness do they demonstrate on the basic issues, including:

  • Do they know the difference in the prevalence of prescription opioid vs. illicit opioid abuse?

  • Do they know that addiction is not determined by the drug, but by genetic and environmental factors?

  • Do they know that the volume of pills prescribed to people in various parts of the country does not determine the number of overdose deaths?

  • Do they know that the prevalence of overdose deaths correlates with the loss of jobs and lack of income opportunity?

2) Will they de-stigmatize the disease of addiction by:

  • Decriminalizing the use of drugs?

  • Acknowledging addiction is a disease?

  • Understanding that babies cannot be born addicted?

  • Educating people that physical dependence and withdrawal can occur without addiction?

3) Do they favor access to substance abuse treatment in a timely fashion for everyone who needs it, regardless of their ability to pay?

4) Will they advocate for people in pain to receive opioid therapy when appropriate at the dose determined by their provider, rather than by the government?

5) Will they acknowledge the unintended consequences of the CDC opioid prescribing guideline?

Shining a Light on Addiction

The ideal candidate should recognize the tragedies associated with all addictions, not just with prescription opioids. He or she must recognize that addiction is part of being human, and that some people are more vulnerable to addiction than others, just as some people are more vulnerable to developing cancer or heart disease.

Whoever becomes or remains our president must shine the light of information on addiction, rather than hide it in the darkness of misinformation, shame and denial. 


Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is author of the award-winning book, “The Painful Truth” and co-producer of the documentary, “It Hurts Until You Die.”

You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

A Pain Platform: What Patients Should Look for in 2020 Candidates

By Crystal Lindell, PNN Columnist

I met my boyfriend, who also is a chronic pain patient, at a local county Democrat meeting a little over a year ago. We’re both crazy liberals, but he always says he knew it was love when I turned to him during the meeting and said, “If Donald Trump made hydrocodone over-the-counter, I’d vote for him in 2020.”

I have a political science bachelor’s degree and spent hours in my college classes lamenting about the surge of single-issue voters. Why would anyone vote for a presidential candidate just because they were pro-choice?

But now that I’m sick and depend on pain pills to function, I have to tell you, I kind of get it. If there were a candidate who supported my right to pain medication, I’d go work for their campaign.

Unfortunately though, there aren’t any candidates who really seem to represent the things pain patients need — not yet anyway. Both major parties have pushed for limits on opioid medication, regardless of whether your doctor thinks you need it. And both have ignored the pleas of pain patients for access to alternative treatments.


Here’s a list of 13 things that pain patients should be looking for in 2020 presidential candidates — a “Pain Platform” if you will. I’m not sure any candidate will truly live up to this ideal, but we won’t know until we ask.

1. Eliminate regulations for prescription opioids

This is the big one, obviously. And the most important. In a misguided attempt to respond to the opioid epidemic, there has been a surge in the number of regulations for opioid prescriptions that includes everything from limiting the amount a patient can get to arresting doctors who prescribe too much. That needs to stop.

2. Require insurers to fully cover alternative pain treatments

This one is also obvious. If they truly believe that opioids shouldn’t be the only pain treatment, then they need to support other treatments financially. And specifically the $0 co-pay is so important.

Insurance companies may think that a $30 co-pay for a physical therapy session isn’t that much, but if you need three sessions a week for three months suddenly you’re looking at more than $1,000. That’s too much. Especially for pain patients, who tend to have less income than the general population.

3. Provide research grants for new pain treatments

Even patients who use opioids know they aren’t a cure-all. But unfortunately, there aren’t many good alternatives for treating pain. That needs to change and requires research into new therapies that could help. If the government really wants people to use fewer opioids, they need to research alternatives that actually work.

4. Legalize recreational marijuana at the federal level

Personally, marijuana doesn’t help me much with pain. But for some people it’s exactly what they need, which is why it needs to be legalized. And yes, I think it needs to be legalized recreationally, because patients shouldn’t have to go a doctor and get a prescription to treat their pain.

5. Make kratom legal in all 50 states

I personally have found kratom to be extremely helpful for treating my chronic pain. In Illinois, I can get it over-the-counter, so I don’t have to drive over an hour each way to see a doctor every time I need a refill. Unfortunately, several states have made kratom illegal and some are considering it. That needs to change.

6. Forgive all medical debt

I have great insurance through a great job and I still have literally thousands of dollars in medical debt — all from co-pays. I can’t catch up because anytime I make any progress on it, I have another flare and rack up more bills. We live in the richest country in the world. Healthcare shouldn’t be what kills your credit.

7. Launch Medicare for all

I shouldn’t have to be over a certain age or legally disabled to get good health insurance. Everyone should have access to that. It’s not hard.

8. Make it easier to get disability while still working

The problem with disability is that you have to be out of work for a long period of time before you get your benefits. That’s impossible for anyone who’s responsible for their own bills. Yes, they give you back pay if you eventually qualify for disability, but landlords aren’t typically the type of people who will let you back pay them. You should be able to apply for disability while you’re still working so that you have steady income throughout.

9. Make disability pay a living wage

You’re barely allowed to make any income if you collect disability. But disability alone isn’t enough to live on in most places. People who depend on it shouldn’t also be relegated to poverty.

10. Allow people on disability to get married without penalty

This is a big one. As it stands right now, if you’re currently getting disability and Medicare you can lose those benefits if you get married because they count your spouse's income toward your income. Losing both kills your independence and can drastically increase your medical bills.

We should be encouraging love for people who are already dealing with so much, not discouraging it.

11. Require all government services for seniors to be provided to the disabled

This one is mind-blowing to me and I’m shocked that it’s not already the case. If you’re too sick to work, you are effectively retired no matter what your age. And you should have access to the same services seniors receive, such as transportation and other assistance. Some people lose their health early and basing benefits solely on age unfairly punishes those people.

12. Fund a public awareness program for invisible disabilities

I cannot read one more Facebook story about some poor person being screamed at for using a handicap spot because they “don’t look sick.” Lots of sick people look perfectly healthy. I look perfectly healthy, but I’m really sick. You can’t judge someone’s health by how they look. A public awareness campaign about invisible illness would go a long way toward making the lives of disabled people better.

13. Provide more medication-based addiction treatment centers

I know, I know. Patients aren’t addicts. But guess what, a lot of people who get addicted to opioids start with medications for legitimate pain. We shouldn’t abandon them. Providing more medication-based treatment centers is the first step toward helping them. There is a real need for those treatment centers in rural areas, which have been the hardest hit by the opioid crisis. The more addicts we help, the less we’ll have to deal with politicians blaming pain patients for the opioid crisis. 

What else would you add to the Pain Platform? What’s your wish list for 2020 candidates? Maybe if we all share our ideas, they’ll finally start listening to us. 


Crystal Lindell is a journalist who lives in Illinois. She eats too much Taco Bell, drinks too much espresso, and spends too much time looking for the perfect pink lipstick. Crystal has hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. 

Crystal writes about it on her blog, “The Only Certainty is Bad Grammar.”

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.