- Associated Press - Monday, May 9, 2016

NASHUA, N.H. (AP) - Two men who grew up in the shadows of their parents’ addictions shook hands Monday in a New Hampshire courthouse - one, a recent graduate of a drug court program and the other, the U.S. secretary of agriculture.

Secretary Tom Vilsack, who has been candid about his mother’s struggles with alcohol and pills, is leading an Obama administration initiative on rural opioid abuse. He visited Hillsborough County Superior Court in Nashua to hear about its drug court program, which held its first graduation ceremony last week.

Among those he met with was graduate Chris Overka, who described a life of crime that he says was turned around by the support, treatment and accountability the program provided. He described growing up in squalor in Lawrence, Massachusetts, getting kicked out of house at age 15 and committing hundreds of thefts over the years to support himself.

“The first thing I ever did with my dad was shoot heroin. We didn’t play ball, we didn’t play chess, we didn’t play cards,” he said. “I’m not exactly sure what was going on in my mind, but I knew I was doing something with my dad that was important.”

After Overka said he admired the way Vilsack overcame his rough upbringing, Vilsack returned the praise, saying Overka’s experience epitomizes the components of the most successful approaches to the opioid crisis - prevention, treatment, community and family support and criminal justice reform. Accountability is important, he said, but it doesn’t have to come with judgment.

“It took me a long time to realize it was not my mother’s character at issue here,” Vilsack said. “It was not a weakness, it was a disease.”

President Barack Obama appointed Vilsack in January to lead a multi-agency federal effort focused on the heroin in prescription opioid crisis, which in New Hampshire has been claiming nearly one life a day.

Obama’s budget proposal includes $1.1 billion in new funding for opioid use disorder treatment, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has provided more than $213 million for mental health and drug treatment centers in rural areas.

After hearing from New Hampshire officials Monday, Vilsack said the federal government also should consider adding conditions to some housing grants to ensure more apartments would be available to drug court participants or others in recovery.

U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who joined Vilsack at the court, pointed out that many federal grants are allocated based on population or average income rather than how many people in a given state are affected by a problem. “We need to change the formulas,” she said.

New Hampshire has six drug courts, which are designed to allow low-level drug offenders gain treatment and avoid incarceration. Proposed legislation would expand the programs to the remaining four counties.

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