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Mar 21, 2016 2:50 PM

Steinhauser: Gov. Hassan names James Vara as new NH drug czar

NH1 News Political Director

CONCORD – Gov. Maggie Hassan Monday named New Hampshire’s top drug prosecutor as the state’s new so-called drug czar.

Hassan announced that senior assistant attorney general James Vara is her appointment to serve as the state’s Senior Director for Substance Misuse and Behavioral Health.

When he takes over in a few weeks, Vara will become the state’s second official to coordinate New Hampshire’s response to the heroin and opioid epidemic.

"It’s very important as we tackle our heroin and opioid epidemic that we make sure that our senior adviser on addiction and behavioral is somebody who has the support of a wide variety of stakeholders," Hassan said in a one-on-one interview with NH1 News.

"And certainly James Vara, as a senior prosecuting attorney in the department of justice who heads up our drug prosecution team, but also worked on this issue on from many different angles and work with members of the provider and advocacy community, is really just the right person for the job," she continued.

Hassan added that Vara, like other prosecutors, has "quickly learned that this is not a situation that we can arrest our way out of."

In a statement, Vara said that "as the head of the Drug Prosecution Unit, I have seen firsthand the devastating impact that this crisis is having on people across the state."

Jack Wozmak, the former Cheshire County administrator, stepped down in January after coming under fire since last summer from Manchester and Nashua officials, as well as some leading Republican politicians, including Executive Councilor Chris Sununu of Newfields and state Sen. Andy Sandborn of Bedford.

Gov. Hassan said critics accused Wozmak of lacking “passion” for the position and for failing to make any progress in the fight against substance abuse. Hassan defended Wozmak’s performance, saying he worked “tirelessly” and citing his efforts in launching a training program for doctors who prescribe opioids. She also pointed to his push to increase access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone.

Reacting to the naming of Vara, Sununu told NH1 News that “while I do not know Mr. Vara, I look forward to working with anybody who can provide leadership with what’s become the state’s biggest crisis.”

“I encourage Mr. Vara to provide leadership where there is currently none at the state level,” added Sununu, who’s running for the Corner Office this year.

Democratic Executive Councilor Colin Van Ostern, who's also running for governor, told NH1 News he received a call from the governor on Monday morning regarding her drug czar appointment.

Hassan, who’s challenging GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte instead of running for a third term as governor, had been criticized in recent weeks for not naming a new drug czar. Both Sununu and Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas, who’s also running for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, had been vocal critics.

Gatsas told NH1 News that “I don’t know him personally but Manchester Police Chief Nick Willard does. And he says Vara would be a good fit.”

Gatsas says Vara will hopefully “address our concerns about increased penalties for fentanyl distributors and increasing bail amounts.”

New Hampshire GOP chair Jennifer Horn criticized the time Hassan took to make the appointment.

“Governor Hassan’s first drug czar was an incompetent bureaucrat who failed to address the heroin epidemic and lost the confidence of New Hampshire's doctors, local officials and the law enforcement community" Horn wrote.

"It is unacceptable that it took Governor Hassan this long to find a replacement, and it underscores that fact that she has lost focus on her day job and is devoting her full attention to her distracting United States Senate campaign," she added.

Hassan told NH1 News last week that she was “almost done with the interview process” but said that “it’s important that we have the right person.”

“Many of the proposals that our drug czar put in place and made are the very things that the Senate Republicans today are refusing to act on or are acting inadequately on. So the first thing we can all do implementing the proposals our drug czar made to save lives,” Hassan added, in a criticism of GOP state lawmakers who she feels are not acting on proposals that Wozmak first suggested.

And Monday Hassan pushed back against the criticism from Republicans, saying "I think it’s always important that members of both parties stay focused on the people of New Hampshire and their priorities. We understand that the opioid and heroin epidemic is our most pressing public safety and public health challenge. This is an all hands on deck moment for our state. There’s no room for politics."

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