Christopher Poulos Journeys From Prison To The Office Of National Drug Control Policy

By John Lavitt 03/28/16

A resilient law student has embraced recovery and recently finished an internship at the White House, despite a felony drug conviction.

Christopher Poulos Journeys From Prison To The Office Of National Drug Control Policy
photo via Shutterstock

It's not easy for just anyone to get clearance by the Secret Service to work in the White House—particularly a convicted felon. But Christopher Poulos, who spent nearly three years in prison for a drug conviction, did just that. As told by Juliet Eilperin in theWashington Post, the once-homeless teenager from Portland, Maine is living proof that redemption is a real possibility.

Now 33 and finishing law school, Poulos recently completed an internship with the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). His journey to the White House was unconventional, to say the least. In 2008, he was convicted of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and was sentenced to federal prison. When Barack Obama was first elected president, Poulos watched the inauguration from a federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa., listening to the new president’s message of hope. By the fall of 2015, he was working in the White House. 

The director of the ONDCP, Michael Botticelli—who prefers "Recovery Czar" over the traditional moniker for the ONDCP head, "Drug Czar"—knows this firsthand. He has been working a 12-step program since a drunk driving incident almost three decades ago. On appointing staffers who have extreme backgrounds like Poulos, Botticelli said, “I think—not I think, I know—they bring a unique perspective to the work that we do. They bring a sense and a depth of understanding that folks who have not had that direct, lived experience don’t bring.”

The product of a broken home, Poulos was prescribed Ritalin at the age of 13 to address his ADHD. Right away, he misused the prescription, opening the door to other drugs. High school accelerated Poulos' substance use disorder, and he soon began dealing cocaine. Eventually busted by the Drug Enforcement Administration, Poulos was indicted on drug charges. After being arrested, Poulos embraced recovery and began working a 12-step program. 

After being convicted of a felony, the young man spent 33 months in prison and a federal halfway house. When Poulos returned to freedom, he was still sober. “I would have never been involved in any illegal activity had it not been for an untreated addiction,” Poulos explained in an interview. “I never woke up one morning and said, ‘I want to pollute my community with cocaine.’ It was a long road in.”

Back in the outside world, Poulos joined Young People in Recovery and started speaking publicly about his experience. Meeting Botticelli at an event, Poulos was inspired to apply for a White House internship. By the end of the summer, he had an offer on the table from the ONDCP. But in order to work in the White House, he had to go through a rigorous clearance process which required filling out over a hundred pages of documents. He was sure he was going to be rejected. He was wrong.

Poulos continues to give a voice to the recovery community in our nation's capital. In 2015, when Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) was considering his support of $600 million in emergency funding to address opioid abuse in New England, he needed the answer to one important question: Does treatment work? King recalled Poulos' response to the Post. “His answer, unequivocally, was yes.”

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.