The Kids Are Alright: The President of Young People in Recovery Talks to The Fix

By Keri Blakinger 05/24/16

"To literally hear President Obama say right next to you that addiction is a public health issue and not a moral failing. I don’t even have the words for how affirming that was."

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Champion for Change
Photo via Grant W. Martin Photography

Justin Luke Riley was one of the forces behind the creation of Young People in Recovery a little more than five years ago. He and 11 peers got together and decided to found an organization that would support and advocate for young people recovering from substance abuse. It started as a grassroots effort, but today there are more than 80 chapters in 30 states. Last month, Riley, who is currently YPR’s president and CEO, was named one of the White House Champions of Change for Advancing Prevention, Treatment, and Recovery. The Fix sat down with the newly crowned champion to talk about his work, his award, and the course of national drug policy. 

First of all, congratulations! What exactly is this award that you won? 

The Champions of Change was for individuals who are making a substantial difference or massive difference in either prevention, treatment, recovery, or any combination of all three. For our organization, we’re fortunate because we provide programs and resources within all of those areas—whether it’s prevention, treatment, or recoveryand obviously recovery is our bread and butter. It was cool for us just because the work our organization does really checks the mark for all three. 

We’ve written about your organization before, but can you just talk a little bit about Young People in Recovery and how you got involved?

I was part of the founding group that in 2010 gathered and realized that we really wanted to make a big difference for people in or seeking recovery, especially young people. So what we came up with was employment, housing, education and other recovery-related resources. Today we have a whole host of programs that support all types of recovery resources.

So you’re in recovery yourself? 

Yes, I’ve been in long-term recovery since 2007.

There are a lot of different definitions of recovery. What does recovery mean to you? 

I think to me recovery means that I like who I am. For me that was very profound and special. That’s what it means to me—I like myself, which is huge to a guy like me. 

My recovery journey today revolves around faith, family, and service to others, and having a great sense of meaning and purpose. Before I entered recovery, I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t like who I was. I couldn’t picture myself being happy. 

You also probably didn’t picture yourself getting this award. Was it at the White House?

It was! I was able to bring my wife, mom, and a couple board members. It was a really special experience.

Did you get to meet President Obama? 

No, not on that trip, but I met the President a couple weeks earlier in Atlanta. 

Oooh, do tell. 

A few weeks ago I was asked to sit on a panel with President Obama. It was really neat to hear him say it, to have him affirm the work of the recovery advocacy movement, to literally hear him say right next to you that addiction is a public health issue and not a moral failing. I don’t even have the words for how affirming that was. 

People have dreams and visions and a cause and they want people to hear about it, but very few individuals or movements or causes get the attention of a sitting president for an hour and half on stage, hearing him say exactly what you’d want him to say. I will literally never ever forget that feeling. 

What would you like to see him do? 

Ah, I was ready to answer that on TV in Atlanta! So I have an answer. One, he already communicated the first part, taking it from a moral failing to a public health issue. My second ask was I wanted to talk about the $1.1 billion that he has proposed to Congress to help financially resource treatment and recovery. 

We have to make sure that we financially resource recovery. What he can do in the remaining months is continue to see that through Congress. Right now it’s a $1.1 billion pledge, but cash speaks much louder than a pledge.

Advocacy isn’t just for the president, it’s for anybody in America, so he can still be a huge voice. Whether it’s his remaining months as a president or in his future years as ex-president, I hope he champions recovery.

Do you think that will happen? Do you think he’ll get the funding through?

I hope so. If he can’t do it I can’t imagine who else would. I’m not sure the next president will come in with as much gusto for this as Obama has right now. If he can’t do it now, I sure hope it comes to fruition in the next administration.

Speaking of the next administration, we’ve had some interesting choices on the table over the course of this election season. What do you think of the remaining candidates’ drug policies?

My hope is truly that whether it’s Clinton or Trump or whoever, we really see addiction and recovery as a bipartisan issue. So really, whether it’s the right or left side and whoever is going to represent it, this really is getting to the point culturally and politically where it shouldn’t be this side or that side. My hope is that whoever that administration is—and I think we all know that a lot of things are said when they’re running—my hope is that they follow through. So I don’t have a preference or really even an official comment on either set of people, but I do believe that actions speak louder than words so I’m hoping that whoever sits in Obama’s chair is able to back that up. 

That seems like a very pointedly neutral answer considering some of the comments candidates have made about addiction. 

My neutrality is on being an expert on someone’s campaign. I’m not ambivalent or neutral about that whoever is president needs to treat this as a public health matter. An individual who does not see this as a public health matter may not be the most helpful person to have in D.C.

It would be an absolute abomination if whoever the next president is decides to be ignorant enough to say that drug addicts are bad, they should leave. What they should say is, “Wow, we have to be here to believe in our fellow Americans.” 

One of the measures the recovery community has advocated for is CARA, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. What’s the status of that right now?

[Note: Since the date of this interview, the House has not taken up CARA but instead passed a series of its own bills, which the Huffington Post said “largely dropped the focus on treatment and recovery, instead emphasizing prevention and law enforcement aspects.”]

It’s going back and forth between House and Senate, but I do know that one of the revisions is that the recovery part of CARA was stripped out. They’re like, “We’ll just rename it to combatting heroin.” But we can’t make this about just heroin, we have to make it about recovery. 

Looking forward, what are some of the things in the future for you and YPR?

Our national leadership conference is happening in August, and that is like our Super Bowl. That’s when we bring all our chapter leaders and members in, and that’s where we train chapter leaders to go back out into the community and deliver. 

It’s a really, really cool event and it’s happening here in Denver, Colorado. Our annual board meeting happens at the exact same time. Last year was in New York and the year before was in Denver, and this year it’s back in Denver. That is where we can show the value and epicness of young people in recovery. 

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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