Michael Botticelli is in Recovery and Also in Charge of the Nation’s Drug Policy


Michael Botticelli, if you didn’t know already, is the Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, informally known as the drug czar. Not only is he that, he is also the first person in substance-abuse recovery to hold the position.

His history is of course far removed from the alcohol fueled mess it once was, but it is evidence as well that our government is moving towards treating drug abuse with compassion rather than handcuffs.

Mr. Botticelli’s agency, created during the Reagan administration’s war-on-drugs initiatives, devises and controls the budget for national drug policies. It assists the State Department and DEA in dealing with governments of countries from which drugs are exported—such as Mexico, India and china—and works with domestic health and law enforcement officials on strategies to stem the supply and abuse of drugs, from heroin to prescription painkillers.

As it is well known, heroin abuse and deaths in the US have taken a sharp increase in recent years, particularly among the middle class and in rural communities. About 23,000 Americans died from overdoses of prescription painkillers and tranquilizers in 2013—roughly double the total of a decade earlier according to NIDA. Other federal data shows that in 2013, 1.8 million people aged 12 or older received treatment at a facility for abuse of either alcohol or drugs.

Mr. Botticelli has Personally Lived Substance Abuse

In 1988, Mr. Botticelli was arrested on charges of causing an accident while driving drunk on the Massachusetts Turnpike, he woke up the next morning handcuffed to a hospital bed. He spent four months in a court-mandated outpatient treatment program for alcohol abuse and soon left his job as an administrator at Brandeis University to work at a substance abuse treatment center.

Now, 57, Botticelli has been sober for 26 years. His only vice being the occasional cigarette. He even refused a prescription painkiller after having a serious medical procedure for fear of awakening the addictive behavior.

Mr. Botticelli directed the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services in Massachusetts for 10 years before joining the Office of National Drug Control Policy in November 2012 as deputy director under Gil Kerlikowske, a former Seattle chief of police. When Mr. Kerilkowske left, Mr. Botticelli was next in line.

A Battle at the Border

Mr. Botticelli said he embraced his office’s ideas with combating the flow of heroin across the United States border from Mexico. (This role explains his round-the-clock protection by United States marshals.) Yet some of his primary objectives do not attempt to stem substance abuse — they accept the reality. It is a disease and people aren’t always going to stop and they might overdose.

Naloxone and Education: Prevention and Treatment

He wants police officers nationwide to be trained to use naloxone, a nasal spray or injection that can almost instantly resuscitate people who overdose on opiates; better education for prescribers of painkillers and other drugs so that they can recognize signs of abuse or addiction; and the distribution of clean syringes for intravenous drug users to stem the spread of infectious diseases like H.I.V. and hepatitis C.

“Locking people up for minor drug offenses, and especially people with substance-use disorders, is not the answer,” Mr. Botticelli said. “It’s cruel. It’s costly. And it doesn’t make the public any safer.”

Mr. Botticelli said that as the social stigma associated with drug abuse dissuaded people from seeking treatment, the substance-abuse field should take cues from the gay rights movement. He lived that, too — he is gay and married his partner in Massachusetts in 2009.

Reporting primarily to Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, Mr. Botticelli splits time between his Washington office and touring the country visiting treatment centers, making speeches and consulting with local officials on how to improve services for those with substance abuse disorders.

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