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