Drug addiction a disease, not a moral failing, White House says

This post has been corrected. See note at bottom for details.

Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the National Drug Control Policy, has announced a new focus on treating drug addiction as a disease, not a moral failing, and emphasizes removing the stigma placed on drug abusers.

Speaking at the Betty Ford Center in Palm Springs on Monday, Kerlikowske declared that “this country hasn’t looked at recovery in a way that makes sense,” and that he intended to “use the bully pulpit of the White House in a way that brings it out into the open.”

Previous federal drug policies were a three-legged stool, Kerlikowske said, with criminalization, prevention and treatment serving as the foundation for national policies. Now there will be a fourth leg – recovery.

Forming the administration’s new attitude toward drug problems “meant moving beyond talking in the beltway … it meant talking to real people dealing with addiction,” Kerlikowske said.

He praised those currently undergoing treatment for addiction, and implored them to publicly talk about their successes, and failures, in order to raise awareness and acceptance for their struggle.

“The best way to understand a person is to hear their story; I’m asking the recovery community to continue to tell the stories,” he said.

Kerlikowske was introduced by Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Palm Springs), who has been a staunch advocate for rehabilitation to take the spotlight in the battle against addiction.

“We’re failing in our policies. When you look at the statistics … we’re losing the battle,” she said.

“Today, two classes of medicines – painkillers and insomnia and anxiety drugs – are responsible for about 70 deaths and nearly 3,000 emergency room visits a day,” Bono Mack added in a statement.

Kerlikowske outlined three pillars of the new approach. The agency will be working to expand access to rehabilitation, as Kerlikowske noted that 8% of Americans 12 years or older, or about 21 million people, need help but are unable to receive it under current policies. The proposed access includes a voucher system to not only allow those recovering to pay for treatment, but to pay for costs such as transitional housing, child care and work-appropriate clothing.

“The nation doesn’t have a single drug problem, it has a series of regional drug problems,” Kerlikowske said, doubling down on his support for local, community-focused rehabilitation centers, which pull from the strength of personal bonds to raise individuals out of addiction.

Kerlikowske also said that the agency would be taking the fight to the legal system, which he said has 38,000 state or local laws that inhibit people addicted to drugs from receiving the treatment they need.

Monday’s announcement came almost a year after the death of Betty Ford, the former first lady who founded the rehabilitation clinic in 1982 following her own battle with alcoholism and prescription drug use.

For the record, 1:33 p.m. June 11: A previous version of this post gave Rep. Mary Bono Mack’s party affiliation as Democrat. She is a Republican.