America has had “drug czars” — someone who directs the nation’s drug policy — in place since the 1930s. We didn’t start using the term “czar” until a little more recently.
Seventeen people have held the position since its inception, but today we’re going to discuss the current drug czar, Michael Botticelli.
Why are we focusing on him? It’s because of his recent appearance on Politico’s “Pulse Check” podcast, in which Boticelli discussed– among other topics — his own addiction and recovery, showing that sober coaching reaches far into the highest realms of our nation.
“It’s tremendously important for me, as a representative of the administration’s drug policy, to be in recovery,” Botticelli told Politico, pointing out that he had been sober for almost three decades after almost going to jail following a DUI crash. “To give people hope that there is a life on the other side of addiction.”
In the interview, Boticelli spoke of his wish to approach his job from a public health perspective. Drug overdoses in 2014 killed more than 47,000 Americans. The nation’s drug crisis led Congress to approve the nation’s first comprehensive opioid law.
But while some might read about heroin deaths and immediately think “We need tougher laws, harsher sentences,” Botticelli argues that a police crackdown on addicts would do no good.
“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.”
After decades in the field, he thinks it’s a “really miraculous turnaround for police” and argues the government needs to move forward to try to fix the damage the drug war has caused.
Instead of more policing, Boticelli says he wants his focus to be on access, recovery and reduced stigma for addicts. He’s trying to connect to other departments in the Obama administration, and held a series of cross-country heroin awareness week events in September with Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and other officials.
Politico notes that it’s a reversal from the “war on drugs” policies of past administrations.
“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,” Politico writes.
Boticelli agrees that past policies had “a disproportionate impact” on people of color.
“We need to acknowledge that, and we now have an opportunity on drug policy reform and this epidemic to undo that.”
And while this is an election year, Boticelli says whoever takes over for Obama doesn’t move drug policy backwards.
“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 focuses of criminal justice reform.”
From Botticelli’s example, we can see how much recovery and sober coaching can turn peoples’ lives around, no matter what position they hold.
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