Some prominent politicians — think Donald Trump — say that to fight the nation's drug problems, we need to put up more walls. Michael Botticelli believes in tearing them down.
"In the past, we’ve criminalized people with addiction," the White House drug czar told Politico's "Pulse Check" podcast, arguing that aggressive prosecution of some drug users was "really bad public policy." Instead, he says the nation needs a kinder, gentler approach to fighting drug misuse — and as a recovering alcoholic, Botticelli argues he's just the man for the job.
"It’s tremendously important for me, as a representative of the administration’s drug policy, to be in recovery," Botticelli said, pointing to his nearly 30 years of sobriety after a drunk-driving accident almost sent him to jail. "To give people hope that there is a life on the other side of addiction."
The nation's addiction problems have worsened in recent years. Drug overdoses killed more than 47,000 Americans in 2014, more than cars or guns did. Facing a deadly crisis, Congress this year approved the first comprehensive law targeting opioid abuse.
As the Obama administration's point person on drug control, Botticelli says he's trying to bring a "public health approach" to the job, with more focus on access, recovery and reducing stigma. He's also implementing evidence-based policies, like medication-assisted treatment, and working to build bridges with other departments. Last week, Botticelli teamed up with Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and other top officials for a series of cross-country events to advocate for treatment and prevention, as part of the White House's opioid and heroin awareness week.
It's a reversal from previous administrations, when Republican presidents declared an open "war on drugs," and President Bill Clinton even hired a general to lead the drug control office.
But with opioid- and heroin-related deaths rising, it's clear that aggressive prosecution and military-style interventions didn't win the drug war. Instead, it discouraged treatment, and it helped contribute to simmering tensions in the African-American community over whether police target them unfairly.
"It’s very clear that that sort of focus and policy of the past had a disproportionate impact on people of color," Botticelli said. "We need to acknowledge that, and we now have an opportunity on drug policy reform and this epidemic to undo that."
It's not clear what approach to drug policy Trump would take in the White House. While he's pledged to spend money to treat addicted Americans, his policy beyond that is vague. He says his plan to combat heroin use is to "build a wall" that would cut off the flow of illegal immigration — and illegal drugs — from across the border. Experts have said that drug cartels wouldn't be deterred by a wall, finding other ways to smuggle drugs into the United States.
The Trump campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
More broadly, Trump has argued that he would crack down on all crime, stressing on the campaign trail that he's the "law and order" candidate — a message parroted by campaign surrogate Gov. Paul LePage. The Maine governor, arguing for more aggressive police profiling, infamously claimed that heroin is being imported into his state by African-American drug dealers named "D-Money, Smoothie and Shifty."
Botticelli says that a police crackdown on drug users would only make things worse.
"I’ve talked to law enforcement officers across the country," Botticelli said. "One of the things I’ve heard echoes across is that we can’t arrest our way out of the problem."
Having worked in this field for decades, that change in thinking "is really a miraculous turnaround for police," he added, and it's important to keep moving in the current direction in order to fix "some of the damage" left behind.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton says she would build on the Obama administration's policies and has proposed $10 billion in new resources to combat addiction. And like President Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate says she would direct her attorney general to work on prioritizing treatment, rather than incarceration, for low-level drug offenders.
"I hope we set a trajectory that outlives this administration and continues into the next," Botticelli said. "This approach of a much more public health focus of criminal justice reform."
He also acknowledged that struggling to manage addictive behaviors can be a lifelong challenge — and that most people grapple with daily vices and low-level cravings. (Botticelli was nursing a Starbucks coffee before the interview, although he wouldn't admit how many cups per day he drank. "Too many," he grimaced, admitting that he’s still a smoker, too.)
That's one reason why community-based treatment and recovery services are essential, he argued.
"Being in recovery — it’s a process [that] takes months, years, and why people in recovery never say, 'I’m recovered,'" Botticelli said. "It’s not just the stopping that’s important. It’s about dealing with all the other issues in people’s lives."
By Dan Diamond - Politico/sept. 30, 2016
Photo: Bridget Mulcahy
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