Drug Czar Kerlikowske Promotes 'Paradigm Shift' on Abuse

Image credit: Phil Mccarten/AP Photo

White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske visited the Betty Ford Center in California, promoting the administration's attitudinal changes toward drug abuse.

Kerlikowske is the first director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy to speak at the facility in Rancho Mirage, according to a Betty Ford Center spokesman.

Kerlikowske, who formerly served as Seattle's police chief, said his first project in the Obama administration was to institute a "paradigm shift" on substance abuse, bending Washington's policy focus away from punishment and toward prevention, treatment and recovery.

"Drug addiction is not a moral failing on the part of the individual, but a chronic disease of the brain that can be treated," Kerlikowske said Wednesday, telling the audience that one of his first actions was to create a branch solely dedicated to recovery. "This is not my opinion or a political statement open to debate. It is a clear and unequivocal fact borne out by decades of study and research, and it is a fact that neither government nor the public can ignore."

He assumed office in May 2009.

The federal government now spends more money on prevention, treatment and recovery than it does on law enforcement and incarceration, according to Kerlikowske, not counting interdiction or international programs.

Here's how Kerlikowske pitched the agency policies geared toward supporting addiction recovery, expanding access to treatment, examining state and local laws and bolstering community-based programs:

"First, we're working to expand access to treatment. And according to estimates from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 8 percent of Americans age 12 or older -about 21 million people - needed but did not receive substance abuse treatment at a specialty facility in 2010.

That is why we are working to expand The Access to Recovery program, which provides people suffering from substance use disorders with vouchers where they can use to pay for treatment and recovery services. What's extraordinary about this program is that it touches all aspects of participants' lives. They can use these vouchers to receive treatment and counseling, they can use them to overcome obstacles that have traditionally kept them from re-entry into the workforce and into stable housing.

And because these are key factors to successful recovery, this program enables people to use vouchers for child care, access to mutual help group meetings, transportation, transitional housing, work-appropriate clothing and shoes. The flexibility empowers participants to seek the services they need to sustain recovery, and in keeping with AA co-founder Bill Wilson's simple and truthful words: "The roads to recovery are many."

"We're serious about providing support to public health solutions like these. That's why over the past three years, we have spent more than $30 billion to support drug prevention and treatment programs. And I think it's worth noting that this is more than what we spend on U.S. Federal law enforcement and incarceration.

So, first, we're expanding access to treatment. Well second, we are taking a close look at laws meant to deter drug use that unintentionally hurt people on the path to recovery. Research from the National Institute of Justice found 38,000 state and local statutes that impose additional penalties on people convicted of crimes-including drug-related crimes.

These laws burden people who have already served their sentences-in other words, they have already paid their price back to society. We must modify or repeal laws that keep a qualified person in recovery from getting the basics they need to rejoin society.

When housing, employment, or student loans-even something as basic as a driver's license-are out of reach for someone in recovery, the government is only making it more difficult for him or her to succeed.

Third, we must strengthen community-based health and recovery programs. Successful recovery is almost always anchored in a unique community and culture. As we often talk about, this nation doesn't have a single drug problem, it has a series of regional drug problems. We understand that peers are important mentors in the recovery process, and we believe that autonomous, peer-led services are an indispensable component of a treatment and recovery system.

So we want to expand programs like recovery schools, which educate high school and college students in an atmosphere that supports students' recovery. We also are fostering the expansion of peer-led programs, mutual help groups, and recovery support centers.

Just recently we observed National Drug Court Month, and I'm proud to say that 2,600 specialized courts divert about 120,000 non-violent drug offenders away from prison and into treatment every year. Our policies also support programs geared to keep addiction from developing in the first place - programs such as Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment, which helps healthcare professionals recognize the early signs and symptoms of substance use disorders."