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December 12, 2021

In Congress, David Trone keeps it personal: Combating the opioid epidemic that killed his nephew

Credit: Washington Post, Meagan Flynn

Five years after the death of his nephew, David Trone went to Mexico looking for the source of what killed him: the opioid epidemic.

It was official business — a trip last month in his capacity as co-chair of the Commission on Combating Synthetic Opioid Trafficking — but now it was hard to separate the personal from the official, as almost everything the Maryland Democrat was doing in Congress found its way back to Ian.

Halfway through his second term, combating the crisis that killed his nephew has become his biggest mission in Congress. Ian Trone died of a fentanyl-laced heroin overdose in 2016 at age 24, and in Mexico, meeting with Mexican government andlaw enforcement officials , the congressman found no signs that the epidemic was slowing.

“What we really saw was a lack of urgency,” Trone told the opioids commission over Zoom one Wednesday afternoon last month, debriefing the group about the trip. He noted the urgency in the trillions of dollars spent in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The urgency in the hundreds of billions of dollars in response to the coronavirus pandemic.ADVERTISING

But just that afternoon the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed new data showing more than 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses over 12 months — about 75 percent of which were due to opioids — and yet where, Trone wanted to know, was the urgency to stop that crisis?

100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 12 months during the pandemic

Since taking office in 2019, that’s the question Trone has had on repeat, using his office to focus almost exclusively on addiction and its intersection with mental health and the criminal justice system. He’s become arguably the issue’s chief spokesman in Congress, discussing it at almost any opportunity and with any group and, supporters say, traveling his district to gauge the epidemic’s crisis on the ground.

“He’s literally walked door to door with us around Hagerstown to collect medication” for a drug-take-back program, said Hagerstown Mayor Emily Keller, who made combating the opioid epidemic her top priority after losing her best friend to a heroin overdose.

Trone, the mogul owner of Total Wine & More, arrived on Capitol Hill after spending millions of his own fortune in a pair of campaigns. Critics derided him throughout as a rich dilettante seeking to buy a seat in Congress. But in his first two terms Trone has taken a distinct approach to legislating: keeping it personal. “And addiction is personal to me, mental health is personal to us, criminal justice is personal to us,” said Trone, who successfully fought criminal charges three decades agorelated to liquor regulations, ultimately becoming a major donor to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Still, Trone acknowledges “the irony is not lost on me” that his store — one of the largest purveyors of alcohol in the nation — is likely serving some of the very people Trone’s legislation seeks to help out of addiction. But he isn’t exactly losing sleep, noting people who want alcohol will get it, in the same way people who want drugs will get them.

With that irony in mind, Trone said he has tried to champion what he called progressive business practices, such as hiring returning citizens at Total Wine — or, in his office, people in recovery. “I know that whenever I say I have a [medically assisted treatment] appointment, that’s treated like holy ground,” Regan Riley, who works for Trone, said during a roundtable at the treatment center where she has been a patient since she quit drinking last year.l

She specifically wanted to work for Trone, she said, because working on addiction and recovery issues is personal, having lost friends to addiction and an aunt to alcoholism.

And in Trone’s Western Maryland district, his core issues are personal to many of his constituents as well. In fact some of his opponents in the Democratic primary have personal experience with the opioid epidemic, too, underscoring the issue’s importance and resonance in the district. Former delegate Aruna Miller has said she lost her brother to opioid addiction, while Carleah Summers battled addiction herself and now runs recovery houses in the region.

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Maryland has among the highest rates of drug overdose deaths in the United States, and during the pandemic, between 2019 and 2020, the state’s highest increase — by 46 percent — was in Western Maryland. Overdose deaths have slowed in that part of the state in the first half of this year, state data shows — but the crisis had been raging long before the pandemic accelerated it.

Now, Trone is at the center of bipartisan efforts in Congress to make a major investment in putting a dent in the opioid epidemic, and the nation’s dual addiction and mental health crises writ large. “He’s the hardest-working person on the floor on this issue,” said Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), who along with Trone co-chairs the congressional Bipartisan Addiction and Mental Health Task Force.

Trone said his main takeaway on his recent Mexico trip was that it was clear the Mexican government was outmatched by cartels to stop the supply of deadly synthetic opioids coming over the border. The United States, he said, was going to have to find a way to reduce demand. To Fitzpatrick and Trone, that means pushing Congress to invest billions of dollars in boosting treatment access and recovery opportunities for millions of Americans.

“It’s just morphed bigger and bigger and bigger every year, and we have been unwilling to put the dollars behind it to support it,” Trone said of the crisis. “It’s unbelievable the cost to society. But addiction is often the folks who are in the shadows, and people who are struggling, and maybe that’s the reason we haven’t been honest about it and haven’t given the resources.”

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Trone first saw the dangers of addiction while he was growing up in rural Pennsylvania. His father was an alcoholic. The bank later foreclosed on Trone’s childhood farm and house, he said — a story he told often during his campaign — and before his father died Trone spent years taking him on weekends to the 28-day programs and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings that helped him into recovery.

Then, years later, he was doing the same with his nephew.

Two phone calls bookend the years Trone spent trying to help Ian Trone get sober: The first, Dec. 23, 2011, when Ian was picked up on his first drug charge and stuck in jail. And the last, the worst, New Year’s Eve 2016, when his nephew was found dead in a North Carolina hotel room — just days after celebrating the holidays at Trone’s home.

In between, he got clean and relapsed more than a half dozen times, Trone said, all the while simultaneously dealing with mental health challenges, bouts of depression and anxiety. There were incomplete 28-day programs. Successful stretches of treatment and sobriety. Transitional housing. Transitional housing where the owners, Trone said, had relapsed themselves and were in active addiction, and then recovery started all over again.

Ian’sdream was to be a chef one day, Trone said, and he told his nephew he would pay for culinary school once he was ready. “We never quite got there,” Trone said. “But you have to create hope, and there’s not a lot of hope in that community when people all around them are dying” — including some of Ian’s friends, he said.

Similar stories poured out of Trone’s district as the opioid epidemic worsened in Western Maryland, and in communities across America.

Around that time, Keller said, it seemed she could drive through Hagerstown and literally see the epidemic taking hold. “All of a sudden we look out into our communities, and I’m watching people I went to school with walk around unrecognizable,” said the mayor, who first won a city council seat months after her best friend Ashley’s death in 2016. . “It was everywhere, but especially in Hagerstown — you were starting to see the impact on our neighborhoods. On our friends, on our quality of life.”

The problem, she said, is that Ashley kept getting arrested and jailed for possession — but upon her release, the treatment options were slim at the time, and she would inevitably fall right back on heroin.

For years, Kevin Simmers was among the Hagerstown narcotics officers locking up drug users. “And my feeling at the time, my whole life really, was just to lock people up. If someone wants treatment, they’ll get it. I viewed it as a choice.”

Then, his daughter, Brooke, was the one who needed treatment.

She got hooked on Percocet pills, and soon it became heroin, Simmers said, and as he called treatment center after treatment center, unable to find an open bed, or a place where Brooke felt comfortable, she spiraled further into addiction. She diedat 19 of an overdose in her car, found parked outside their church, in 2015.

“When my daughter passed,” Simmers said, “I was just consumed with guilt, about the way we dealt with it, the way the country dealt with it.”

Simmers first met Trone after deciding to open a recovery home and treatment center named in his daughter’s memory: Brooke’s House.

Before the ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2018, Trone called and asked if he could come. At first, Simmers, a lifelong Republican, was skeptical. He didn’t want politicians there, not least a wealthy Democrat. But he said okay, as long as Trone did not speak, and when Simmers arrived at 6:30 to set up for the 8 a.m. ceremony, there was already a man in a suit standing out front.

“I’m like, who the hell is this guy?” Simmers said. “I didn’t know he was a rich guy. I didn’t know he had a nephew that died. I didn’t know anything about the guy.”

But soon he would. Trone, who is known for doling out hefty donations to causes and politicians he supports, donated $100,000 to help Simmers get started. “I started crying right on the spot,” Simmers said.

Simmers and Keller said that although more operations like Brooke’s House have opened in the region over the past several years, local governments still lack the resources to fully confront the crisis — and that’s where their congressman comes in.

Trone and Fitzpatrick said that the Bipartisan Addiction and Mental Health Task Force is preparing to release a report full of legislative recommendations in February that they hope can serve as an impetus for major congressional action on addiction and mental health.

Of the roughly 70 bills that the Bipartisan Addiction and Mental Health Task Force has put forth, Ian’s memory lives between the margins in the legislation Trone has led himself. He has introduced bills to bolster recovery housing best practices, thinking of Ian’s relapses, and to reduce pretrial incarceration for those arrested on federal drug offenses, thinking of Ian in an orange jumpsuit when he needed help.

One of Trone’s bills that passed the House earlier this year, the Family Support Services Act, devotes resources to helping families navigate treatment options for a loved one struggling with addiction — something Trone said he struggled to learn on the fly while he and his wife were trying to vet effective program options with Ian. “It says that it’s not just the individual who’s affected,” he said of the bill, “but it’s the whole family.”

Fitzpatrick said he envisioned spending an entire week passing a slate of bills that the task force has put forth, while Trone broached the possibility of a large package.

“It’s personal to the president,” Trone said, noting Hunter Biden’s struggles with addiction. “It’s personal to so many different members. Now the question is, how do we get it moving?”

One of his tactics: relentlessly reminding everyone he meets with about it.

With Zoom rebootedafter his meeting with the synthetic opioids commission, Trone settled in for a virtual meeting scheduled later that afternoon. It wasn’tspecifically pegged to addiction and mental health. But it didn’t matter.

Through the door, Trone could be heard booming, “I’ve got 70 bills on mental health and addiction — 70!” as his meeting with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee carried on. “We’ve got to get it done.”