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New Hampshire voters who've lost children to opioids say crisis being neglected

Jim and Anne Marie Zanfagna are Democrats, and Doug Griffin is a Republican, all living in southeastern New Hampshire.

As their state holds the first-in-the-nation primary Tuesday, there's one issue they agree on: Candidates need to pay more attention to the opioid crisis wrecking hundreds of lives.

They want to hear more about treatment and recovery programs, because, for them, it hits close to home.

PHOTO: Anne Marie and Jim Zanfagna hold a poster about their organization, Angels of Addictions, in their Plaistow, N.H. home, Jan. 22, 2024. (ABC News )
PHOTO: Anne Marie and Jim Zanfagna hold a poster about their organization, Angels of Addictions, in their Plaistow, N.H. home, Jan. 22, 2024. (ABC News )

Sitting in a living room with soft gray walls and weathered leather chairs, as an orange cat skittered around, Jim and Anne Marie Zanfagna spoke about their daughter, Jacqueline.

"Jackie was actually a bit of an introvert. She was kind of shy until she got familiar with the situation; then she opened up," her father told ABC News.

"She was creative; she was a really good writer … I thought she really had a talent for that," her mother said.

Jackie, who had mental health issues, struggled with opioid use disorder. On Oct. 18, 2014, she died at age 25 from an accidental overdose.

Her mother painted a portrait of her -- capturing a moment of time in her life cut short. She then began painting portraits of others for a local group, Mercy Street, where addicts in recovery and families affected by addiction could come together.

PHOTO: A portrait of Jacqueline Zanfagna painted by her mother Anne Marie. (Courtesy Angels of Addictions)
PHOTO: A portrait of Jacqueline Zanfagna painted by her mother Anne Marie. (Courtesy Angels of Addictions)

Since then, the Zanfagnas have founded a nonprofit, Angels of Addictions, and Anne Marie has painted hundreds of portraits of people who have died from substance use disorder.

MORE: Grieving mom puts face to opioid crisis, one portrait at a time

Doug Griffin of nearby Newton has one of those portraits.

His daughter Courtney was "a shining star," he told ABC News.

"She was smart and funny and always wanted to help somebody. And she fought the drugs."

When Courtney realized she was struggling with drug addiction, Griffin said, she joined the Marine Corps, but she was expelled after a test found a trace of marijuana. Soon after returning home in 2014, she died at age 20 from an overdose of fentanyl.

Griffin has since become an advocate for substance abuse disorder awareness, serving on the advisory board of the Addiction Policy Forum. He also helped found the Mercy Street group.

PHOTO: Portraits painted by Anne Marie Zanfagna. Each one has the name of the person and their date of birth and death on a tag in the lower left corner. (ABC News)
PHOTO: Portraits painted by Anne Marie Zanfagna. Each one has the name of the person and their date of birth and death on a tag in the lower left corner. (ABC News)

Grappling with a complex issue – on and off the campaign trail

Experts say that opioid use disorder is a medical illness defined by a pattern of using opioids in ways that cause distress and problems.

In New Hampshire, there have been over 1,000 drug overdose deaths involving opioids since 2017, according to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services.

ABC News affiliate WMUR reported that over 480 people died in 2022 from drug-related overdoses in New Hampshire.

The state offers a variety of treatment and prevention programs, as well as help to those recovering from substance use disorder.

In mid-January, GOP candidate former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley paid a visit to the Hope on Haven Hill substance use disorder recovery center in Rochester, New Hampshire. She spoke about investing in mental health treatment and empowering states to spend federal funds, according to an Associated Press account of her visit.

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley greets patients during a visit to Hope on Haven Hill, a wellness center, Jan. 17, 2024, in Rochester, N.H.  (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)
PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley greets patients during a visit to Hope on Haven Hill, a wellness center, Jan. 17, 2024, in Rochester, N.H. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)

But much of the focus on the campaign trail has been on how fentanyl and other opioids are trafficked across the U.S. southern border.

At a rally in Manchester Saturday night, former President Donald Trump said, "upon taking office, I will terminate every open border policy that Biden and the Biden administration put on ... To stop the deadly drugs that are poisoning and pouring into our country, poisoning our people, I will deploy the U.S. Navy."

PHOTO: Former U.S. President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump holds a rally in advance of the New Hampshire presidential primary election in Rochester, N. H., Jan. 21, 2024.  (Mike Segar/Reuters)
PHOTO: Former U.S. President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump holds a rally in advance of the New Hampshire presidential primary election in Rochester, N. H., Jan. 21, 2024. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Trump also criticized Haley: "Nikki Haley will never secure the border or stop the fentanyl that is killing thousands and thousands of New Hampshire citizens."

Haley has argued that both Trump and Biden failed to adequately address the flow of fentanyl into the U.S.

"When it comes to the border, I don't even know what to say; it doesn't even look like the United States of America ... We had more fentanyl cross the border last year; that would kill every single American," Haley said at a campaign stop in Peterborough, New Hampshire, on Saturday.

MORE: Nikki Haley highlights differences with Trump on China, fentanyl, national debt

Officials have said that there is a heavy volume of fentanyl being trafficked across the U.S southern border while highlighting that its misuse is "a societal issue" that the nation needs to grapple with.

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley holds a patient's baby while speaking at Hope on Haven Hill, a wellness center, Jan. 17, 2024, in Rochester, N.H.  (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)
PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley holds a patient's baby while speaking at Hope on Haven Hill, a wellness center, Jan. 17, 2024, in Rochester, N.H. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)

"Nikki Haley is speaking that she wants to close the borders -- that will help with immigration," Griffin said. "I don't know how huge an effect that will have on drug process… they're going to find some way to get the drugs into the country."

Jim Zanfagna said that he went to one of Haley's events and gave her a contact card during a chance to take a photo with her.

"And she was all smiles, whatever, you know; and then I did say to her something to the effect [of], 'I'm here because of the opioid epidemic and the issues. Her face just dropped… so she was paying attention to that side of the story, what I said, which meant to me that she was actually thinking about it."

Wendy Goodro, an assistant for Angels of Addictions and participant in the Mercy Street program, feels differently: "I've heard some things that Nikki Haley has claimed; it's not the worst. But she participates in the 'wall-building conversation.' And that's -- I don't really have words for what that is," she said.

From a political standpoint, Griffin said, "I think if there was a candidate that stood up and said that they were in favor of recovery-friendly communities … I think it would get a lot of votes," because so many families in New Hampshire have lost someone to substance use disorder.

Anne Marie Zanfagna put it directly.

"Where is the outrage?" she asked.

The primary and beyond

Griffin said he was still undecided, as of Monday morning, about whom he will vote for in the Republican primary. On substance use disorder, specifically, he said that he has heard Haley say she will fix the problem, without offering specifics, while he can point to the Trump administration's record of grappling with it.

But Griffin highlighted that he himself has worked across party lines – with the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations – on solutions. Griffin and his wife Pam attended President Joe Biden's State of the Union address in 2023, where Biden referenced Courtney Griffin in his remarks.

The Zanfagnas and Goodro expressed no faith in Trump on the issue.

"He's just not talking about it, you know ..." Anne Marie Zanfagna said. "... unless he wants to talk about building his wall, which is ..." Goodro added. "That's the only thing he's talking about," Jim Zanfagna said.

PHOTO: Aerial view of Franconia Notch, N.H. (Joe Sohm/Visions of America via Getty Images, FILE)
PHOTO: Aerial view of Franconia Notch, N.H. (Joe Sohm/Visions of America via Getty Images, FILE)

MORE: Biden's not on ballot in NH's primary, but Dems still want him to win. Here's how.

MORE: Haley goes head-to-head with Trump in New Hampshire. Some experts say it won't help.

The Zanfagnas and Goodro insist that the discussions about how to solve the crisis of opioid misuse must continue well beyond the New Hampshire primary.

That includes steps such as educating people about substance abuse and misuse, reducing the cost of both mental and physical health care, and helping people access the care they need quickly

MORE: A year after the launch of 988, advocates say it's saving lives

.

In future elections, Griffin hopes people talk about the prevention of opioid misuse in addition to recovery services: "if we could just head it off, make a huge push at the elementary, middle and high school [levels], then we can start to really fight the drug crisis."

"We need politicians to buy into this, buy into the big picture. This is a national problem," Jim Zanfagna said.

PHOTO: Portraits painted by Anne Marie Zanfagna. Each one has the name of the person and their date of birth and death on a tag in the lower left corner. (ABC News)
PHOTO: Portraits painted by Anne Marie Zanfagna. Each one has the name of the person and their date of birth and death on a tag in the lower left corner. (ABC News)

SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, has a 24/7 free and confidential helpline available at 1-800-662-HELP (4357), and online at samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline. For those seeking treatment, visit findtreatment.gov.

If you or someone you know is struggling with addictions or any mental health challenge free, confidential help is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call or text the national lifeline at 988.

ABC News' Gabriella Abdul-Hakim, Kelsey Walsh, Abby Cruz, Nicholas Kerr, and Quinn Owen contributed to this report.

New Hampshire voters who've lost children to opioids say crisis being neglected originally appeared on abcnews.go.com