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October 28, 2002

Bush past should shape policy

William Moyers is vice president for external affairs for the Hazelden Foundation. His personal experiences were the basis for the 1998 public television series, “Moyers on Addiction: Close to Home.”

If only America’s so-called war on drugs could be recast in the spirit of my chance meeting with President George W. Bush last year in the White House Rose Garden.

“Mr. President, my name is William Moyers. I’m from Minnesota, and I am a person in recovery,” I said. Without batting an eye, the president grasped my hand and replied, “Sounds like we have something in common.”

I was all but a complete stranger to Bush. But in that moment we connected. And because I told him nothing else about me, I assume it was from the commonality of our experiences of having overcome the desperate condition of drinking too much.

I am a recovering alcoholic and addict. Whether the president labels himself the same, I don’t know. But on that day, at least, Bush knew exactly where I was coming from because, by his own account, he once drank too much and now he doesn’t drink at all.

Ironically, our handshake occurred just after the president had used the Rose Garden ceremony to announce his nomination of John Walters as the nation’s drug czar. Critics within the drug policy reform movement denounced the appointment, saying Walters’ track record showed he was no friend of addicted people. What’s more, Walters has said he sees addiction as a moral or criminal issue, rather than an illness. In policy terms, that translates into funds going to law enforcement and supply suppression rather than to the kind of treatment programs that helped me and thousands of others.

But, flush with optimism that finally we had a president who understood the power of addiction and the possibility of recovery, I urged restraint in opposing the Walters nomination. Maybe now, I argued to my fellow policy reform advocates, the president’s own experience would allow his administration to refocus the war on drugs, promoting effective prevention and treatment programs over previous policies that emphasized interdiction and tough law enforcement. My position was met with criticism from my colleagues in the addiction treatment field, solicited an angry call from a U.S. senator and sparked disdain from some of my fellow recovering alcoholics.

Ultimately, the Senate approved Walters’ nomination, after both he and the president spoke repeatedly about narrowing the treatment gap for the 3.5 million people that the federal government estimates need treatment but are not seeking help. For a while, at least, it appeared the administration’s approach had been tempered by the reality that America’s war on drugs required a more balanced approach.

And then Sept. 11 happened, which abruptly rewrote the national agenda. Suddenly the war on drugs became an adjunct to the war on terrorism. The Office of National Drug Control Policy has run distasteful television ads that equate teenage drug use with support for terrorists, part of a $185 million per year media blitz that Walters now admits has been ineffective. Proposed funding for prevention and treatment of drug addiction did increase in the president’s 2003 budget—as did federal dollars for interdiction and law enforcement.

But the fact remains that two-thirds of the $19 billion the Bush administration wants to spend fighting drugs merely targets the supply—rather than treating the demand.

I had hope for a more balanced approach. The first family knows all about underage drinking and the problems it causes. And earlier this year, the media reported that a relative of the president was arrested and ended up in treatment after forging a prescription for a tranquilizer in Florida. Surely, I reasoned, these personal experiences would resonate at the White House, leading to a saner drug policy for all of us.

Alas, it was not to be. In April, the president spoke out in favor of more equitable insurance coverage for people struggling with debilitating mental illnesses like depression and bipolar disorder. But he left out any mention of the illness that his family and mine know well: alcoholism and drug dependence.

The nonprofit foundation I work for extends about $5 million a year in financial aid to addicted people and their families seeking treatment. Ironically, most of this assistance goes to employed people whose private health care insurance won’t pay for the professional and comprehensive help they need to overcome their illness. In Congress, legislation to fix this disparity draws strong opposition from some of Bush’s biggest political supporters, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the insurance industry. When it comes to the politics of addiction, it seems the president has more in common with his campaign contributors than he does with people like me.

Yet treatment for addiction does work. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, treatment cuts drug use by roughly half, reported alcohol and drug-related medical illnesses decline by more than 50 percent, and criminal activity drops by as much as 80 percent.

And recovery benefits all of society. When people like me stop using and abusing, we stop demanding Colombia’s cocaine, Afghanistan’s heroin and Mexico’s marijuana. We get back to work, pay taxes, obey the law and vote.

And, once in a rare while, one of us who changed our drug or alcohol habits gets a chance to be president of the United States.

This essay is reprinted with permission from the Hazelden Foundation and the Los Angeles Times.