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October 21, 2021

‘Addiction’s not a crime’: Family loss leads to U.S. Rep. Trone’s fight against opioid abuse

Credit: Frederick-News Post, Ryan Marshall

His logic for the bipartisan approach is simple. “Anything we want, we can pass on the Democratic side [of the House], because we have more votes than they do,” Trone said. “But I have to pass it through the Senate. So if I have Republicans in the House on my bill, I can get Republicans in the Senate.”

Fighting the stigma of addiction

Fighting the opioid crisis is how Trone ended up in Congress in the first place.

For five years, he and his wife June Malament Trone helped his nephew Ian as he struggled with addiction and mental health issues — and the legal consequences that came with them.

They helped him get into treatment, guaranteed leases for apartments and helped him solve the problem of finding work with a criminal record.

After growing up in Montgomery County, Ian moved to Asheville, N.C., to get some distance from his troubles.

But after being clean for 13 months, he relapsed and died from a dose of heroin laced with fentanyl in an Asheville hotel room on Christmas Eve 2016.

“That was the trigger point that got me involved very much in learning about opioids, addiction, fentanyl,” Trone said. “And the mental health piece, I quickly realized, was intricately linked to the fentanyl/opioid addiction problem.”

He’s intent on getting rid of the stigma that surrounds addiction and mental health issues. According to the National Network of Depression Centers, 1 in 5 Americans will be impacted by mental illness during their lifetime.

“People don’t see that stigmatizing people because they have a disease of addiction or a disease of mental health causes these people not to get the help that they need,” Trone said. “And when they don’t get help, it only gets worse. So stigmatization is really discrimination. It’s discriminating against folks who have a disease.”

Trone’s work in addressing the opioid problem has drawn the attention of others on Capitol Hill, according to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.-Dist. 5).

“Our caucus knows how deeply personal this issue is to him,” Hoyer said in a statement to the News-Post. “As a co-chair of the Bipartisan Addiction and Mental Health Task Force, the entire House is grateful for his work to raise awareness and advocate for creative solutions to this crisis. David is a decent and compassionate Marylander who is laser-focused on getting work done for our state.

“Because of his advocacy,” Hoyer continued, “I know we can meet the needs of Marylanders who struggle with addiction, treatment, and finding access to mental health services.”

That advocacy was what helped draw Miller-Meeks’ attention when she was looking to work on opioid issues.  

“I was happy to partner with Congressman Trone to get our DUMP Opioids Act signed into law,” Miller-Meeks said in a statement to the News-Post. “Given my previous work on substance abuse disorder as a physician and as a State Senator in Iowa, this issue has been incredibly important to me for some time.

“Congressman Trone was an easy choice to work with on this bill given his family’s personal experience with opioids, his strong record of advocating for recovery and addiction treatment programs, and his previous work with this important issue,” Miller-Meeks said.

Along with addiction and mental health, Trone is committed to working on addressing the criminal justice issues that often come with addiction.

“Addiction’s not a crime. Addiction is a disease,” he said. “And we need to treat it like a disease and help people, and not just put them in jail. That’s the worst thing we could possibly do.”

He sees an ironic comparison between the struggles of people like his nephew and his own battle with cancer in 2018.

“Everybody wanted to help me when I had cancer, from [Gov.] Larry Hogan right on down,” Trone said. “But if I had the disease of addiction, people are like ‘Whoa, that’s his problem.'”

Trying to move the needle

The congressman acknowledges that issues like addiction and mental health are easier to gather consensus on among his colleagues than some other topics, since everyone on Capitol Hill deals with those problems in their districts.

Trone also credits his business background with helping him work among both Republicans and Democrats.

In 1991, Trone founded a store in Delaware called Liquor World, then another, and the company that became Total Wine and More spread until it exceeded 230 stores.

He’s done very well in the business, to the point that Trone and his family have given away more than $100 million over the past five years to causes that include the Trone Center for Justice and Equality at the New York headquarters of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Trone Family Public Policy Initiative Fund at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Trone received his MBA from the school in 1985.

But he recognizes that while he’s dedicated his money and congressional career to fighting the effects of addiction, he’s made his fortune selling a product that helps some people feed their own dependency.

He’s seen the toll alcoholism takes on a family up close — his father’s battle with the disease cost the family its Pennsylvania farm when Trone was growing up.

“It’s very ironic that I’m in the alcohol beverage business,” he said. “So I think we have a responsibility, even more so than others, to try and give back to the community.”

He said Total Wine’s policy is to card anyone under 30, and the company pays out several million dollars a year in bonuses for employee compliance in checking IDs.

His business success has helped him carve out a niche for himself in Congress, where he’s been endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, among other business groups.

“I’m for jobs. I’m for supporting business all day long,” Trone said.

But his pro-business stance helps balance other stances that are more to the left.

“I think my voting record is very progressive. People look at me and see a successful businessman, and they also see common sense,” he said.

In his office are several vintage campaign posters for Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey.

He feels a special connection with Humphrey, a leader in the Senate on civil rights and the rights of the dispossessed.

“Humphrey cared about people in the shadows,” the congressman said. “… Those are the folks who we ought to be here to try and help. And if I can make that kind of difference, that’s a good legacy to leave behind.”

Unlike some Democratic lawmakers in the state, he tries to maintain a good relationship with Hogan (R), building on their common business backgrounds, their experiences as cancer survivors and a pragmatic approach to politics.

“I think we’re both in this because we didn’t need a job,” Trone said. “We’re in this because we want to actually move the needle on things we care about.”

And his business background and experience growing up on a farm in Pennsylvania’s Adams County can help him make connections to the Republican colleagues that help maintain his moderate image.

It’s an approach he sometimes wishes more people in his party would adopt.

“I think the Democratic Party sometimes hasn’t taken the time to understand rural America,” he said. “And if you don’t understand rural America, you can’t quite move the needle, because when you get to the Senate, so many of the senators on the Republican side come from rural America. So they live a rural lifestyle. And I grew up in a rural lifestyle: a 200-acre farm, 55,000 chickens, 18 hundred hogs. It was a real working farm. Stress the word ‘work.’ So when you understand that, I think it helps you relate to people.”

‘There are other things I’d like to do’

Admitting with a shrug that “I love business way more than politics,” Trone doesn’t have any timetable for how long he plans to stick around Congress.

His Sixth District could be significantly redrawn in the new round of redistricting after the 2020 Census, possibly removing some of the more Democratic areas from its boundaries.

But while he’s roused by the give-and-take of Capitol Hill, it’s clear he has no intention of being a lifer like Hoyer or some of his other colleagues.

“I’m not here to become chairman of [the] Ways and Means [committee], I’m not here to become Speaker of the House. I don’t have the longevity to be here for 40 years, nor the interest. There are other things I’d like to do.”

And he’s confident he’ll know when it’s time to leave.

“If I’m not getting anything done, I’m out of here.”