Drug czar says addiction is a health problem, not a moral failing


Drug czar Gil Kerlikowske says the Obama administration has changed its thinking about people addicted to drugs -- and you should too.

In a speech Monday at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Kerlikowske said it was time to stop believing that the millions of Americans who abuse drugs are moral failures and instead realize that they have a disease.

“We know from scientific research conducted by some of the world’s leading neuroscientists that drug addiction is not a moral failing on the part of the individual. It’s a chronic disease of the brain that can be treated,” said Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy since 2009. “This is not my opinion or a political statement open to debate -- it is a clear and unequivocal. It’s a fact borne out by decades of study and research. And it is a fact that neither government nor the public can ignore.”


Efforts to “arrest our way to a drug-free society” are doomed to fail, he said. Likewise, he added, simply legalizing drugs of abuse will not solve the problem. What works is to get people into recovery programs and then support them as they fight their daily battles against addiction, he said.

For instance, there are more than 38,000 state and local statutes that make it harder for people in recovery to stay off of drugs, according to research from the National Institute of Justice. Even after someone has served a sentence for a drug-related crime, he or she may still be cut off from student loans, affordable housing, certain kinds of jobs and maybe even a driver’s license.

“I’ve met with so many people who talk about, ‘Once we’re in recovery and once we’re doing better, why are we continually punished?’” Kerlikowske said. Obstacles like these prevent people from rejoining society, which isn’t helpful to anyone, he said.

Since treatment works, the federal government is trying to make it more available to the people who need it. In his speech, Kerlikowske cited an estimate from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health that about 21 million people who needed substance abuse treatment at a specialty facility in 2010 were not able to get it. That worked out to 8% of Americans over the age of 11.

The Obama administration has responded by expanding a voucher program that allows people to use funds to get treatment or to help them stay off drugs after treatment ends, Kerlikowske said. For example, recipients could use their vouchers for child care, so that they could hold down a job. They could even use the funds to buy clothing and shoes that are appropriate for the workplace.

In recognition of the fact that drug addiction is a medical problem, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act -- a.k.a. “Obamacare” -- now requires health insurance companies to cover treatment for substance abuse. That came nearly 20 years after Betty Ford and fellow former First Lady Rosalynn Carter lobbied Congress to consider such treatment programs as part of healthcare.

The overarching goal, Kerlikowske said, is “lifting the stigma surrounding those who suffer from addiction.”

Keeping an open mind about people who struggle with drug addiction can pay off, he said. As proof, he cited an article by Times reporter Kurt Streeter, who has chronicled an unlikely friendship between Michael Banyard, who got a 25-years-to-life prison sentence for being caught with “a sliver of crack,” and Spencer Letts, the judge who reversed the decision on appeal and became Banyard’s mentor.

“Here were two men whom fate couldn’t have made more different, but, through the simple act of listening, found they had more in common than either could have imagined,” Kerlikowske said. He quoted Letts as saying that Banyard “was the one who showed me that my gut feeling was right, that people are basically the same, with the same basic goodness if you just give them the chance.”

The drug czar continued: “By talking about addiction in the light of day -- and by celebrating recovery out loud -- we can help correct the misinformation and stigma that become obstacles for people who want to live healthy, productive lives.”

Banyard and Letts attended the speech, seated together in the front row.

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