Drug Czar Writes Intimate Blog About Addiction and Public Health

By Zachary Siegel 07/15/15

With Obama’s power of clemency comes time to reflect on how we criminalize and punish those who suffer. There is a better way.

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The worlds of criminal justice and drug addiction are abuzz with news of Obama commuting sentences for many who received needlessly harsh penalties for non-violent drug crimes.

On Tuesday, Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (NDCP), wrote an intimate blog post detailing where the country stands on drug addiction.

Botticelli writes, “Despite the fact that nearly every family and community in America is affected by substance use disorders, those fighting to overcome this disease are too often hidden in the shadows of shame or stigma.”

He spoke of his own recovery story, and how America needs to hear such stories in order to revalue how we collectively judge and condemn those who find themselves walking the thin line of self-control and compulsion.

“This Administration is committed to evidence-based solutions that recognize substance use disorders as a medical condition that can be treated—not a moral failing. These advances are not enough, however, unless we fundamentally change the way we think about people with addiction,” he writes.

The same old question then—that’s asked so often it must deafen those who’ve heard it—continues to arise: if substance use is a medical condition, why do we continue to imprison people who have committed crimes in order to feed a habit society has deemed illegal? Maybe if people are given ample resources to live meaningful lives reaching for a drug at the expense of family, friends, and mobility wouldn’t lead to crime. 

Botticelli’s moment of meditation on addiction and how the U.S. looks at those who are addicted is accompanied by a letter that a 26-year-old woman in recovery from crack cocaine and heroin wrote to President Obama.

In the letter she thanks him and his administration for supporting diversionary programs that would have jailed her and stamped her with a criminal record. “A diversion program saved my life, returned me to my family, and gave me fulfillment.”

Obama wrote back to the young woman. “Hearing experiences like yours motivates me to ensure people with substance use disorders get the second chances and support they need to reclaim their lives and reach their full potential.” The president also urged her to never lose her “optimistic spirit.”

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.