Columba Bush puts drug addiction fight among top priorities

MIAMI (AP) — The wife of Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush says the highly personal fight she waged against drug addiction as Florida's first lady would remain one of her top priorities in the White House.

Columba Bush, whose daughter has struggled with addiction, penned an op-ed published over the weekend in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, calling attention to the nationwide epidemic of addiction to heroin and prescription painkillers. She's also met with drug prevention advocates and others in New Hampshire and Nevada — home to early primaries or caucuses — as well as Maine.

"I believe that education is prevention, and we should use our voices to raise awareness and stop this epidemic that is crippling our communities, our state and our nation," she wrote.

For the Bush family, the fight against drug abuse is both personal and political.

In a town hall meeting last week in Merrimack, New Hampshire, Bush talked about the couple's "lifetime challenge" in helping their daughter, Noelle, recover from drug addiction.

Noelle was arrested in January 2002 and accused of trying to pass a fraudulent prescription at a pharmacy to obtain the anti-anxiety drug Xanax. Then 25, she completed a drug rehabilitation program in August 2003 and a judge dismissed the drug charges against her.

"People need to stay together in this regard," said Jeb Bush. "I have some personal experience with this as a dad, and it is the most heartbreaking thing in the world to have to go through."

Columba Bush, meanwhile, also cited a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that found about 15,000 Americans die annually from overdoses of prescription painkillers and that heroin-related overdoses had quadrupled since 2002.

The number of U.S. heroin users nationwide has grown by nearly 300,000 over a decade, with the bulk of the increase among whites, according to a CDC report released last month. Experts believe the rise was driven by people switching from opioid painkillers to cheaper heroin.

"These statistics are staggering and clearly illustrate that opioid and prescription drug addiction is a threat to the health of our country," Bush wrote in her op-ed.

In Nevada, where Bush noted that overdose fatalities had grown 80 percent since 1999, she praised the work of a drug treatment clinic founded by casino magnate Sheldon G. Adelson and his wife, Miriam, who is a physician. He is one of the GOP's most powerful donors and was the largest single contributor during the 2012 presidential campaign.

The fight against drug abuse is not new to the Bushes. Bush said that while her husband was governor of Florida, he increased funding for substance abuse treatment and rehabilitation facilities. He also created the Office of Drug Control to combat drug abuse through education and prevention.

Columba Bush said the couple has sought to "dismantle the stigma associated with talking about substance abuse in our families and our communities."