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Hunter Biden trial puts America’s addiction crisis back into focus

Analysis by Josh Campbell, CNN

(CNN) — Whatever one thinks of the Hunter Biden criminal case, the start of the federal gun trial involving the president’s son this week in Delaware laid bare a sobering aspect of American life that transcends partisan politics: a nation struggling with addiction.

The trial comes as federal, state, and local officials have been battling an epidemic of drug overdoses across the country in states both red and blue, including those involving the highly potent opioid fentanyl.

Hunter Biden has pleaded not guilty to charges of illegally purchasing and possessing a gun while abusing or being addicted to drugs, a violation of federal law.

After prospective jurors were sworn in Monday inside Wilmington’s J. Caleb Boggs federal building, the judge overseeing the case read aloud a list of questions that would be used in winnowing down the group of residents who would rule on the case against Hunter Biden.

“Have you, a family member or a close friend ever suffered from drug or alcohol abuse, or been addicted to drugs or alcohol in any way?” asked the judge.

Another question probed whether potential jurors or their close associates had ever sought treatment for drug use.

During their, at times, emotional answers, prospective juror after juror described how drug use had afflicted people they knew.

One potential juror described their daughter’s struggle with addiction, indicating that after recovery “everybody needs a second chance.”

Another prospective juror said their childhood best friend had died from an overdose of heroin.

“I have lost many friends to drug overdoses,” said yet another potential juror. “I feel it’s an every day part of the world these days.”

Recent data underscore a troubling national picture of drug overdoses.

About 42% of adults in the United States say they personally know at least one person who died from a drug overdose, according to survey findings published earlier this year by the nonprofit research institute RAND Corporation.

The report found that among adults who reported knowing someone who died by overdose, the average number of lives lost whom they knew was two – which illustrates the “far-reaching consequences” of the nation’s overdose crisis.

“That number doesn’t even account for the number of people who struggled with drugs or alcohol and didn’t have an overdose,” said Dr. Scott Hadland, an addiction expert with Boston’s Mass General for Children.

In addition to illuminating the sheer number of Americans impacted by addiction, Hunter Biden’s trial is also creating critical awareness around the very language used to describe drug use.

Medical experts and victim advocates have called for an end to the use of words like “addict,” opting for less judgmental descriptors like “people experiencing addiction.”

“Addiction is a disease,” according to the Partnership to End Addiction. “It’s important that we use language that frames it as a health issue and shows respect to people with addiction and their families who are impacted. Just like we would with any other disease.”

“Words like ‘addict’ are harmful because they contribute to stigma,” said Hadland. “Stigma makes it difficult for people to seek help, including turning to family and friends for support. Amid a national overdose crisis, we want to make sure that people who need help feel comfortable seeking it out.”

Addiction experts also caution against generalizing about those using drugs, noting the issue impacts people across individual communities, political parties and socio-economic status.

“The reasons for why folks develop a substance use disorder are as varied as there are human beings on this planet,” said Dr. Andy Mendenhall of the Oregon treatment and outreach organization Central City Concern. “What we can say unequivocally is that multigenerational poverty, mental illness, depression, anxiety, job loss, [and] trauma are all part of the narrative of why folks seek to feel different through the use of substances.”

Even those responsible for enforcing the law and arresting criminal drug users and dealers say nuance is critical to helping steer individuals toward treatment as officials work to solve America’s drug crisis.

“This addictive behavior is not something to be taken lightly and, not to be like, ‘Oh, just get a job,’ or ‘Just get help,’” Portland Police Chief Bob Day previously told CNN. “There are demons there that I could never understand. I want to get past some of the politics and get past some of the certitude about who’s right and who’s wrong and really recognize that lives are in the balance here.”

CNN’s Deidre McPhillips, Marshall Cohen, and Jacqueline Howard contributed to this report.

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