Adam Carolla, Tyler White, Brandon Stogsdill, Dr. Drew

Conceived by rape, Brandon Stogsdill was raised by his mother who struggled with alcoholism, drug addiction and mental illness. “My dad was obviously never around and a lot of my childhood memories of my mom are her drunk, passed out and me wondering if she was dead,” says Stogsdill. 

As if that weren’t enough to bear, Stogsdill became the victim of molestation at the age of four. “I pretty much thought it was my fault, was ashamed of it, and kept it a secret,” he says.

Given the trauma Stogsdill endured, school was a challenge. “I was never really good at school. I was always a step behind and very anxious,” he says. “But my life was just my life. I didn’t know things were bad and that we were poor, even though we were on welfare, went to food banks, and stayed in shelters. I just thought it was the way things were.”

Stogsdill’s older sister looked out for him until she became pregnant at 16 and moved out. He continued to live with his mother and her various boyfriends until his mother went into a mental institution when Stogsdill was a sophomore in high school.

“Before this, I was just kind of moving along in life. Things started to change in 10th grade though. My mom left and my girlfriend broke my heart. I became suicidal and started picking fights with anybody, began robbing houses, driving around in stolen cars, selling drugs, and not caring about anything,” he says. “Then I messed with the wrong people who threatened to kill me so I got a .357 Magnum gun.”

This decision set the course for the rest of Stogsdill’s life. “I was quickly introduced to a power I never anticipated. From that point, anytime someone looked at me wrong or hit me up with a gang sign (even though I wasn’t in a gang), I’d just fire and shoot at them. I thought I was a vigilante taking care of the bad people and that no one would get hurt,” he says. 

When Stogsdill was 17, his friends got into a fight with a group of teens and turned to him for help. “I’d do anything for my friends. I had the mentality that anyone messing with them was a bad guy. I didn’t think I was going to get in trouble since I was just a kid, so I went after the kids that were messing with my friends and fired my gun twice at their car just to scare them, but one of the bullets penetrated into the trunk and lodged into a speaker just inches away from someone’s neck. Thankfully, no one was hurt,” he says.

Still, the police tracked down Stogsdill. After several months of pleading innocent, he eventually confessed and was sentenced to four years in prison. “I just got tired of all the bad things I was doing and being afraid of the police or other people coming after me, so I finally confessed. They didn’t arrest me at first, but then I got messed up in some other things and they eventually charged me as an adult,” he says.

Prison Time Proved Worthy 

Stogsdill went to prison a couple weeks after his 18th birthday and served about three and a half years. “At first I thought it was ridiculous that I was serving time and believed they were just trying to make an example out of me, but what I realized was that everybody in prison thought that what they did was someone else’s fault or the police’s fault or that their attorney screwed them,” he says.

Stogsdill says three things brought him to realize what he did was wrong: “God got ahold of my heart, gave me a purpose and allowed me to feel forgiven so I could move forward. I know it doesn’t make sense and I can’t explain or prove this, but with faith I started to feel convicted and began to understand that what I did was wrong and that I could've really hurt somebody,” he says.

Next to God, Dr. Drew also played a part in Stogsdill’s turnaround. “An inmate came to my door laughing hysterically. He told me I had to turn on Loveline, so I did and found it really funny. I listened to it at first to kind of laugh at how stupid some people sounded who called in, but then after months of listening, I started realizing that many of the callers had similar backgrounds to me and other inmates—no dads, abused, neglected—and I started really listening to Dr. Drew talk about how all of this affects people,” he says.

A Dose of Self-Reflection

Listening to the radio show encouraged Stogsdill to seek out counseling in prison, but his request was denied, so he continued to find guidance through Loveline. “Dr. Drew educated me on things I never knew about and allowed me to engage in self-exploration. I began to realize why my childhood and past lead me to prison. It just all began to make sense,” he says.

This realization lead Stogsdill to find his purpose. “While in prison, I was watching the news and saw this 17-year-old kid getting thrown in the back of a police car 'cause he was carrying an assault weapon, and I remember getting mad at this kid. I saw myself, and instantly I wanted to prevent other kids from doing the same thing,” he says.

Stogsdill tried to initiate a program for inmates to talk to at-risk youth in the community. “There’s a terrible program called Scared Straight that brings troubled kids to prisons and has inmates yell and scream at them. I designed a more effective program called The Real Experience that would have inmates talk to kids about what it’s like to make poor decisions in hopes of preventing them from going to prison, but I knew education was the only way I was going to be able to get the program rolling.”

So began Stogsdill’s journey of learning. “Starting school was the hardest thing for me because I was never smart in school, always a step behind, and always thought I was dumb. I mean, I graduated high school on bail with a 1.87 GPA, only because friends did my homework and only because I wanted to impress the judge,” he says. 

Yet Stogsdill enrolled in as many college courses as he could while in prison and received 32 credit hours during his first year. “Once I realized I could do it, I got a desire and thirst for it, and wanted to keep learning more and more,” he says. Inmates coined him "The Scholar,” and when he was released he took 187 college credits with him. Within an hour of getting out of prison, he went straight to Pierce Community College. “I had no money, but my prison teachers helped me secure a scholarship there,” he says.

At the same time, Stogsdill began volunteering at a church outreach program for kids. “I shared my story with them and took them snowboarding and bike riding, something I dreamed of doing when I was in prison,” he says.

After receiving an associate’s degree, Stogsdill got a full academic scholarship to the University of Washington and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. 

Dream Big

While at the University of Washington, Pierce College invited Stogsdill back to speak at its scholarship luncheons. “I started seeing people really inspired by my experience—they’d cry and hug me afterwards. I never anticipated that,” he says. 

At the University of Washington, Stogsdill continued sharing his story with professors. An anthropologist who conducts studies in prison heard about him and asked to meet him. “She was skeptical that I could just get out of prison and go to community college, so we met and we clicked instantly. She encouraged me to write a book,” he says.

Stogsdill took her advice and spent seven years turning his story into a book. The Boy with the Gun was published in 2013, and even includes a foreword from Stogsdill’s idol, Dr. Drew. 

“His show became monumental to my life in prison. Him and Adam Carolla essentially became father figures to me, and I wanted to thank them more than anything. When I got out of prison, I tried to call the show multiple times, but it was impossible to get through,” says Stogsdill. 

So he found another way. When Stogsdill heard that Dr. Drew was going to speak at Pierce College, he persistently asked teachers to arrange a meeting with him. “I couldn’t believe they made it happen. I was so nervous, awkwardly cleared my throat, and blurted out my story as quickly as I could. I told him that his advice changed my life and that I wrote a book with a whole chapter devoted to him,” Stogsdill explains.

To Stogsdill’s surprise, Dr. Drew took his manuscript and read the whole book. “He evidently read it on his plane ride home and then wrote me a two-page email about how much he loved it. Since then, we’ve kept in touch, and I consider him a friend and my mentor,” he says.

In 2009, Stogsdill appeared as a guest on Loveline. “It was the one thing in prison that I looked forward to and here I am in the studio. They put me on the air with comedian Jamie Kennedy. Dr. Drew was talking about my brain and how I had conduct disorder as a kid, but was able to turn my life around. Jamie Kennedy was making fun of me. It was an awesome experience.”

Theory Turned Reality

Once Stogsdill obtained a bachelor’s degree, he landed a job at a center for children and teens with severe autism. “When I applied, I told them I had a prison felony and they supported me while I fought the courts for over a year to prove that I had the integrity to work with youth,” he says.

Stogsdill continued to work with youth while working towards a master’s degree in clinical psychology. For the past five years, he has worked as a licensed mental health counselor and chemical dependency professional for Sound Mental Health, the largest mental health agency in Washington that provides counseling in their office, at prisons, in schools and in the community. “We work with the most challenging youth in the state, who come from broken homes, mental hospitals, are incarcerated, and who experienced abuse and violence,” he says. 

Stogsdill counsels kids one-on-one, and also uses action sports, such as snowboarding, indoor sky diving, bike riding, and longboarding to help channel their behavior into something positive. “If kids come in and don’t want to talk I’ll say ‘okay let’s go for a bike ride,’“ he says. “Recently, we worked with kids in an intensive substance abuse outpatient program and they didn’t want to be there that day, so I took them longboarding by the river. It was amazing to see them light up and have fun. Naturally, they began talking about how longboarding is similar to drugs because it’s risky, but fun and makes them feel alive.”

Sound Mental Health hopes to initiate The Real Experience program that Stogsdill developed in prison. “We were about to start it, but there are barriers, such as funding issues and the fact that right now prisons aren’t allowing kids to visit, but I have policies and procedures written,” he says.

On top of all that, Stogsdill is also working toward a doctorate in psychology, as well as publishing a psychological thriller, The Psychologist and Kill All List. “Working with sexual assault victims can be very heavy and dark, so writing this was my way of processing it all,” he says. 

The book details a series of sex offenders getting murdered, and leaves the reader guessing if the murderer is a psychologist, his clients, or a police officer. “Intertwined in the story, I aim to educate the public on sexual assault by including statistics and explanations of what it does to the victims,” says Stogsdill. “The book’s kind of a product of everything I’ve been through personally, seen growing up, learned while studying psychology and experience as a therapist.”

Cathy Cassata is a regular contributor to The Fix. She recently wrote about how dance and movement can help recoveryConnect with her on twitter—@Cassatastyle.

From incarcerated teen to accomplished therapist, Brandon Stogsdill credits education, God, and Dr. Drew for his turnaround.
By Cathy Cassata
bad medicine

This article discusses three kinds of drug therapies in addiction: 

  • Substitution or maintenance of a less harmful version of the same addiction (e.g., Suboxone, buprenorphine, methadone, nicotine gums/patches)
  • Interference with substance effects (e.g., antabuse/disulfiram—which makes drinkers nauseous)
  • Antagonists that block the effects of the drug (e.g., naltrexone, an opioid antagonist used with both narcotic addiction and alcoholism)

These drugs have all shown some success in clinical trials. But their limitations are threefold:

  • Not everyone responds to the therapy 
  • Poor compliance (continuation) with the treatment
  • The drugs detract from users’ sense of efficacy and belief in their ability to quit or limit use on their own

In general, methadone and buprenorphine (or its commercial form, Suboxone, combining buprenorphine with naloxone, which reduces craving) make it less likely that the person will return to the drug to which they were originally addicted, as shown by this Cochrane Review of buprenorphine. The review did not establish that buprenorphine was life-saving however.

But there is a fundamental problem with substitution, and with all of the other drug therapies. Since all of them reduce the effectiveness of the original drug of choice, people are tempted to quit the therapy and return to the drug—or else to seek a comparable, alternative drug experience.   

Thus, most people won’t remain on a maintenance medication. With Suboxone, about 60% of recipients reject the treatment by six months. That figure only increases over time. People quit Suboxone because many simply want to use street narcotics, which many find more effective for addressing their emotional needs or for the experience it provides. 

What are the consequences of inexact compliance, let alone total rejection of the maintenance drug? To take one well-known case, when Philip Seymour Hoffman died due to his heroin use, buprenorphine, for which he had a prescription, was found near his body.

So Hoffman is a case where prescribing the maintenance drug was not life-saving. Did the prescription of the narcotic substitute in some sense contribute to his death? That is hard to say. But there are arguments to be made that this could be true.

To take an addiction therapy other than narcotics, Antabuse (disulfiram) is a substance that prevents alcoholics from drinking, since the drug makes people nauseous when they do drink.  

But what guarantees that the person will continue to take Antabuse, and what are the consequences if they quit? Part of the treatment protocol in effective therapies, like the Community Reinforcement Approach, is to have a partner or friend ensure that the alcohol-dependent person takes their daily dose of the drug. But that can be a hard row to hoe for the partner.

And will this drug adherence continue for the person’s lifetime? It is usually not clear for how long the drug therapy is to be used, whether it is short-term, in order to wean the person from the substance, or long-term, as the essential tool for lifetime abstinence. Methadone maintenance as practiced tends to be long-term, often for life.

Maintaining lifetime compliance with a drug therapy is another hard row to hoe. Then the question becomes: When a person discontinues their drug treatment, what will be the result? And the answer seems to be a high-relapse rate. This is true for Antabuse—the person stops taking the Antabuse because they want to drink, or even if this is not a conscious decision they make, returning to drinking is still a frequent consequence.

Let’s turn to another drug addiction—nicotine. The most popular medical treatment for quitting smoking is nicotine replace therapy (NRT), either through patches or gum. This is a billion-dollar industry heavily promoted by Big Pharma.

As to effectiveness, in clinical trials, NRT produces a slight but distinct advantage over people’s quitting cold turkey. But, as to maintaining NRT, we then enter the real world. A group of researchers at Harvard’s Center for Global Tobacco Control compared people who quit smoking either cold turkey, or with NRT, three times at interims of two years. (These researchers were on record as supporters of NRT.) 

The study found no advantage in smoking cessation from using NRT over the years. Moreover, for the most dependent smokers, NRT use led to relapse twice as often. This typically happened quite early on, when the smokers abandoned their NRT regimen, and then quickly relapsed, even when they received simultaneous counseling. “We were hoping for a very different story,” said Dr. Gregory N. Connolly, director of Harvard’s Center for Global Tobacco Control and co-author of the study. “I ran a treatment program for years, and we invested millions in treatment services.”

Why did highly dependent smokers relapse so readily after receiving NRT?

The most important ingredients in quitting addictions are the belief that you can, and your commitment to doing so. These elements represent a basic life shift; they are inescapable aspects of overcoming addiction in the long run. And these essential ingredients to recovery cannot be injected or ingested in drug form.

Instead, telling yourself that you can’t quit your addiction without the drug undercuts the self-efficacy required to achieve freedom from addiction.

Up to this point, I have been speaking about narcotics that act on the person like illicit narcotics, occupying the same receptor sites. These maintenance drugs substitute for heroin. Nicotine gums and patches—as well as e-cigarettes—provide the same addictive drug as cigarettes, but without the dangers of smoking. That’s a legitimate harm reduction approach, and I endorse it.

Nonetheless, believing that you are an addict who can’t escape your addiction is a downside to such programs. Sometimes, just how serious this downside is can be seen in the research (among the investigators, even more so than the subjects).

A drug used to treat both narcotic addiction and alcoholism is naltrexone. Naltrexone (NTX) is an opioid antagonist—that is, it operates by blocking receptor sites for narcotics, so that the drugs’ effects aren’t experienced.

For some time NTX has been used for treating alcoholism. Although alcohol does not have a specific receptor site, it is thought that the opioid antagonist action of the drug quells the effects of alcohol as well. And good, but often spotty, results have been had with NTX therapy. But this variation in NTX’s effectiveness has prompted speculation and research.

Thus, a team associated with the most prestigious medical research group for addiction—led by Charles O’Brien at the University of Pennsylvania department of psychiatry—tried to clarify why some alcohol-dependent subjects responded well to NTX, and others not at all. Their hypothesis for the study was that two variations of the same opioid-receptor gene either allowed NTX to have its desired effect of blocking the receptor site, or did not facilitate blockage.  

O’Brien and colleagues hypothesized that non-responders and responders to NTX had variations (alleles) of the same opioid-receptor gene (also called genotypes). They conducted an NTX trial with 221 alcohol-dependent individuals with these variant alleles.  

Here were the results:

There was no evidence of a genotype × treatment interaction on the primary outcome of heavy drinking (i.e., relapse). In the Asn40 group (one gene variant), the observed effect of naltrexone was similar to that in previous trials. . . A significant reduction in heavy drinking occurred across all groups (that is, with both allele groups and both the NTX and placebo). Other drinking outcomes, and all secondary outcomes, demonstrated similar time effects, with no genotype × treatment interaction.

So, the researchers say, NTX worked as usual for relapse with the one gene group. Oh, but all of the groups, the two with different gene variants, whether they received NTX or they received placebo, reduced their heavy drinking equally! That is, all four groups were virtually identical on all measures: binge rates, days drinking, average daily drinks, and even reported cravings.

But, since the researchers were only looking for a genotype to distinguish responders and non-responders, this is their bottom-line, take-home conclusion: “Despite the results of this trial, pharmacogenetics continues to hold promise as a way to improve the targeting of medications to improve treatment response.” In other words, let’s find another genetic way to identify those who respond differentially to NTX.  

But this conclusion makes no sense. The authors are simply showing that mere research cannot remove the blinders with which researchers approach addiction.

This group of medical researchers remains highly committed to the idea of NTX’s effectiveness, and they only want to find out why it works well for some but not others. But, using the best research methodology they could devise—including double-blinding subjects (neither the therapists nor the subjects knew whether they were receiving the placebo or NTX). Subjects who thought they were getting the drug, but weren't, reduced their binge drinking and drank moderately exactly the same as those who actually received naltrexone.

In order to maximize what they actually found, rather than looking for a pharmacogenetic link, the researchers need to find genes that augment the self-efficacy or responsiveness to placebos that subjects showed, which determined the results of the study. (Note to O’Brien et al.: There are no such genes.)

What this study really demonstrates was completely lost on the researchers. It’s true that one genotype of alcohol-dependent subjects responded as well to NTX as the other. But both genotypes of alcohol-dependent subjects also responded just as well to the placebo, cutting back the percentage of days they drank from 80% of days to 40-50% of days—the higher percentage being true for one of the NTX groups) and from 8-10 drinks daily to fewer than four on those days they did drink. Moreover, all groups reported a large decline in craving for alcohol!

People could cut back their drinking just as well as when they were simply holding onto that feather (i.e., the placebo) that allowed Dumbo to fly!

This is a hard result for us—and the researchers—to fathom: If people can quit or cut back themselves, then why would they need to use the drug therapy in the first place? 

Their self-efficacy was a discovery subjects were only able to make because they weren’t given the naltrexone. Indeed, if the blind weren’t removed after the study was completed, they still wouldn’t know that they never got the drug. Or if they learned that they were in the NTX therapy group, they might still think, “Only the drug enabled me to quit.”

But they’re wrong. The bottom line: Everything people need to reduce their binge drinking/alcohol dependence/addiction is already in their minds, ready to be activated whether or not they receive naltrexone by mindfulness techniques. Once the mind is activated, even by fooling people, the drug treatment adds nothing.

Stanton Peele, Ph.D., is the author of Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict. He will be interviewed by Tom Horvath, President of SMART Recovery, in a webinar on the future of addiction treatmenton Saturday, May 16, 2015, 5:00 PM EDT. He is the recipient of career achievement awards from the Center for Alcohol Studies and the Drug Policy Alliance. His Life Process Program for treating addiction is available online. He last wrote about how he became an addiction expert.

Relapse is common for drug treatments—but worse is when people attribute their recovery to them.
By Stanton Peele
Michele Leonhart
War on Law

Following revelations of sex parties with Colombian drug cartel prostitutes by agents on her watch, Michele Leonhart will leave the top job at the DEA. She told the Attorney General, Eric Holder that she planned to retire after 8 years as the Agency's administrator. The report on sexual misconduct with the DEA, Department of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, US Marshalls Service (USMS) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), was the final straw for the embattled Drug Agency boss, whose career was peppered with calamity, embarrassment and missteps.

What’s just as worrying as the criminal behavior of her underlings was the policy of lies and cover-ups that existed under her stewardship. Is it really surprising, that an organization’s discipline would fall apart if their boss was evasive and hostile to her superiors? She was openly critical of the president’s policies on drug enforcement and with the secretive Special Operations Division (SOD), ignored the law and skirted the judicial process.

Even before she was confirmed by Congress as the new administrator in 2010, she was stonewalling Congress.

Leonhart is a holdover from the days of Bush’s tenure as president. She joined the DEA in 1980 and was popular amongst the ranks of law enforcement for her experience on the streets as a beat cop in Baltimore, Maryland. She rose quickly to become the first female Special Agent in Charge and then became acting administrator of the DEA in 2004. A smooth run through the Bush years, where her role in the "War on Drugs," was as you might expect: No compromise and no surrender. It was heartily endorsed.

When the administration changed hands, Leonhart stood precariously in front of the Judiciary Committee with the ex-president’s nomination for administrator in her hand. She expected a rubber-stamping even from the jubilant new Democratic Congress. But she stalled at the gate. During the Bush years, the DEA had intervened in the practice of nurses dispensing pain medication to nursing home residents, unable to manage their own prescriptions. It had become virtually impossible for nurses to give pain relief to LTCF patients without a constant referral to a physician. She dodged questions about reforming these aging policies by Senator Herb Kohl, the chairman of the Senate Special Aging Committee, until the senator threatened to fight her administrator nomination. Quickly, she backtracked and promised changes in the LTCF policies and she received Kohl’s grudging endorsement.

During the same interview, she fired her first shot across the bows of the new president’s ship:

“I have seen what marijuana use has done to young people, I have seen the abuse, I have seen what it’s done to families. It’s bad...If confirmed as administrator, we would continue to enforce the federal drug laws.”

Her position on marijuana is obsolete, not to say absurd. Just a year ago, after a brief exchange in court, she was forced to return 250 pounds of seized hemp seeds bound for Kentucky—a cash crop already green-lighted by Congress.

Criticism from the house was sharp and pointed. The White House had been willing to let Colorado and Washington continue their experiment in marijuana legalization, but in January of last year, behind closed doors at an off-the-record D.C. National Sheriffs’ Association conference, she openly expressed her disdain for Obama. Also strangely, she singled out another hemp issue (strange because commercial hemp isn’t classified as a drug and can’t get you high). As reported in the Boston Herald, Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson said:

"She said her lowest point in 33 years in the DEA was when she learned they’d flown a hemp flag over the Capitol on July 4. The sheriffs were all shocked. This is the first time in 28 years I’ve ever heard anyone in her position be this candid.”

Of his dealings with Leonhart, a Democratic Representative from Colorado, Jared Polis (who was responsible for flying the hemp flag) said:

“(He) found her to be completely incompetent and unknowledgeable." 

Polis’s grilling of Leonhart on YouTube in 2012, is remarkable. The DEA boss seemed to stumble, unable to distinguish between the properties and relative health impacts of pot and heroin/meth/prescription drugs.

Pro-pot Democratic Representative Steve Cohen, for Tennessee said:

"The honorable thing to do would be to assume a Japanese posture and resign."

Throughout Leonhart’s tenure the DEA operated a policy of non-disclosure and non-transparency. In 2013, it emerged that the DEA’s secret unit, the Special Operations Division, (SOD) were using "parallel construction" to incriminate those suspected of criminal drug activity. Simply put, the SOD might tell local law enforcement to set up a traffic stop and search a vehicle suspected of drug offenses and then lie about the SOD tip, pretending the prosecution was initiated from the traffic stop. This allegedly common law enforcement tactic stops defense lawyers from discovering evidence the prosecution were obliged to reveal, such as where the tip originally came from.

It seems clear the deceit and evasion trickled down into the ranks, both on and off duty, and it was this climate of deceit that brought Leonhart and the DEA to their knees in the recent sex scandal.

Leonhart’s public outbursts and overreach into states’ affairs pale into insignificance when it comes to the revelations of sex parties involving DEA agents, managers and regional directors in Bogotá, Colombia—a regular occurrence since 2001, according to an internal DEA report.

The Inspector General’s (IG) report focuses on sex parties with prostitutes between 2005 and 2008, that occurred on US government properties in rented accommodation and government vehicles. Amazingly, three agents were given gifts, money and weapons from drug cartel members.

The IG's report also highlights the constant stonewalling by the DEA when asked to deliver information to the inquiry. Frustrations that have muddied the waters so much, it may be impossible to uncover the whole truth behind the activities of the most corrupt agents stationed in Colombia. The report states:

“Therefore, we cannot be completely confident that the … DEA provided us with all information relevant to this review. As a result, our report reflects the findings and conclusions we reached based on the information made available to us.”

There’s more dirt out there, basically.

A collapse of discipline and criminal activity is an indicator of a lack of leadership. Michele Leonhart complained about President Obama’s lead on drug policy; she seemed incompetent when questioned by Congress about the actual problems drugs caused; she overreached her authority in non drug matters; and she was held to account by Attorney General Eric Holder on at least one occasion. The secrecy, evasion and culture of deceit she incited in the drug agency brought the house down on her head.

If your boss treats her boss with contempt and she evades legal authority, turns a blind eye to indiscretions and criminality, why should you pay attention to the rules?

Neville Elder is a regular contributor to The Fix. He's also a photographer and writer. Originally from the UK, he's lived in the unfashionable end of Brooklyn for 13 years. He last wrote about the forgotten victory in the War on Drugs.

Michele Leonhart, the disgraced former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, didn’t fall from grace—she jumped.
By Neville Elder