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Governor chooses new drug czar

New Hampshire Union Leader

March 21. 2016 8:20PM

James Vara 

Gov. Maggie Hassan has chosen a new drug czar to help New Hampshire fight a heroin and opioid epidemic.

She named Senior Assistant Attorney General James C. Vara on Monday to the position of governor’s adviser on addiction and behavioral health. He succeeds Jack Wozmak, who resigned Feb. 1, amid criticism from Republican leaders.

Vara won praise Monday from New Futures Executive Director Linda Saunders Paquette, as well as Manchester Police Chief Nick Willard.

Republican opposition to the appointment is focused not on Vara’s expertise, but in part on the timing of the announcement.

Republican State Committee Chairman Jennifer Horn accused Hassan, a Democrat, of dragging her feet in finding a replacement for Wozmak, while spending her energies on running for U.S. Senate.

Executive Councilor Chris Sununu, a Republican candidate for governor and a loud critic of Wozmak, said he hopes Vara will provide sorely needed leadership during the crisis.

“This is an epidemic crisis that requires the state’s full attention and an individual willing to address the issue on the front lines and coordinate all the potential services and resources the state of New Hampshire can provide,” Sununu said. “We have to get politics out of the way and provide leadership to serve the state and its citizens.”

Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas, a Republican who is running for governor, said he looks forward to sitting down with Vara, along with Willard and the city’s fire and emergency medical officials, to work on a comprehensive response to the drug scourge.

“It’s important that we move forward in a united front so we can get this under control,” Gatsas said. “We’re losing lives.”

Saunders Paquette, in a statement, recounted collaborating with Vara on past alcohol and drug policy issues.

“Attorney Vara’s prosecutorial and legislative expertise and experience in the area of substance misuse, and the high level of respect he has earned with behavioral health stakeholders throughout the state make him an excellent choice to fulfill the responsibilities of this critical position,” Saunders said.

Firsthand experience

Vara has led the drug prosecution unit in the Attorney General’s Office since 2013. He serves on the state’s drug task force, and was co-chairman of the opioid task force that developed legislation to crack down on fentanyl, which Hassan signed into law earlier this year.

He previously worked as assistant county attorney in Grafton County. He received his undergraduate degree from Montclair State University and his law degree from Rutgers University School of Law.

“He is well respected across the state by substance misuse and behavioral health advocates and the law enforcement community, and I thank him for his commitment to taking on this incredibly important responsibility,” Hassan said in announcing Vara.

Vara pointed to his firsthand experience with the crisis. “We know that we cannot arrest our way out of this problem, and I thank Governor Hassan for entrusting me with this important responsibility,” he said in a statement. “I look forward to working with the law enforcement community, substance misuse and behavioral health advocates, elected officials, state agencies, local and federal government, people in recovery and families touched by addiction to build on the governor’s efforts to stem and reverse the tide of this epidemic and help save lives.”

The position is funded from the Governor’s Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention, Treatment and Recovery.

Per an agreement between the governor’s office and the state Department of Health and Human Services, the funds for the position will come before the governor and Executive Council on April 6, according to Hassan.

The position is within the governor’s office and is not subject to approval of governor and Executive Council, but the council must approve the transfer of funds. The memorandum of understanding for the funds will be for about $185,000, which covers the rest of the current fiscal year and the next fiscal year, according to the governor’s office. The funding level includes benefits and other expenses, such as travel and computer. The position’s annual salary is $95,000.

Candidates react

Rep. Frank Edelblut, a Wilton Republican who is running for governor, said he hopes Vara can blend his background in prosecution with a wider focus on health, treatment and recovery to combat the epidemic.

“I am glad that the governor has finally done something,” Edelblut said.

Two Democratic gubernatorial candidates applauded the hire.

“Governor Hassan continues to show leadership in the fight against the opioid crisis in our state,” said Mark Connolly, a former deputy secretary of state and chief of the state’s securities regulation bureau. “James Vara has a record of taking action against the devastating effects of drug addiction, and he has won the respect of experts, behavioral health advocates, law enforcement, and victims across New Hampshire. As a state, we must come together to take on this crisis, and I look forward to Mr. Vara’s leadership.”

Executive Councilor Colin Van Ostern said Vara’s expertise will be put to good use.

“James Vara has a strong background for this important role, and I am glad to see it has been filled,” Van Ostern said. “I look forward to working with him and other leaders across our state in making progress against the opioid crisis that has impacted every community in New Hampshire.”

Vara is expected to fill the position full-time within three weeks, as he transitions from his current job at the Attorney General’s Office.

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