Substance Abuse: 775-825-HELP

By: Lt. Jason J. Grellner, Vice President National Narcotics Officers’ Associations’ Coalition

Listening to, and reading the transcript of, the “60 Minutes” interview of Michael Botticelli, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), I felt betrayed. In response, I would tell Director Botticelli that the past 40 years of drug law enforcement hasn’t been “all wrong”. It has been hard work. As of late, it has been underfunded and, like most of law enforcement, under-appreciated. Local, state and federal law enforcement have done their best to enforce the policies of his predecessors and the laws written by Congress. Those policies have had great success: until recently, drug use across the board was at the lowest levels since the 1970’s. Those policies were good, but here’s what we need now: Someone who understands the impact that prevention, law enforcement and rehabilitation can have if we join forces. Someone who understands that incarcerated addicts are a captive audience, and that completing an incarceration rehabilitation program could accompany early release from prison. A leader who understands how this would lower recidivism rates and save billions in the long run. Someone who realizes that drug courts and other alternative programs work for many but are not a one-size-fits-all, and that a 30-year addict with a criminal history of the same length needs intense therapy that will not be found in an outpatient program.

What I have learned is that citizens and victims of crime basically want two things: the criminal to pay for his crime and to not reoffend. In Missouri, we have around 30,000 prison beds, but less than 500 are rehab beds. If we know that more than half of all prisoners are addicts, shouldn’t the Director be looking at ways to fund more rehabilitation in our prison systems? We need programs which are fact-based and staffed with professional counselors who will help to lower prison populations and recidivism rates. For those offenders who can’t or won’t complete these programs, prison is the only way we have found to keep them away from the society they prey on.

Even with these measures, rehabilitation isn’t the total answer. As the Director stated, “Substance use is one of the last diseases where we let people reach their most acute phase before we offer them intervention.” This is why prevention has such an important role to play in a drug strategy. Strong and robust educational programs, early intervention efforts, and targeting at-risk youth will hopefully help individuals to avoid the disease of addiction all together. Educating doctors to the warning signs of addiction and the risks of long-term use of opioid pain relievers will help to turn the tide in our country’s latest drug tragedy. Law enforcement will continue to do its part by identifying individuals who are at a critical point in their disease state by arresting them when they break the laws we swore to uphold. Sound drug policy will unite prevention, law enforcement and rehabilitation, not divide us and set us back decades.

Director Botticelli, in that “60 Minutes” interview, stated that “the old war on drugs is all wrong”. There are two phrases in the English language which just set me on fire: “war on drugs” and “medical marijuana”. We don’t use legislation to define medicine, we use science, research and reason, but that is for another day. A “War on Drugs” has never occurred – it is just a political phrase, not used by those in the business. American leaders know which countries are growing, manufacturing, researching, transporting and distributing drugs to Americans. Have we declared war on those countries? With current technology we can read a license plate on a ‘78 Ford truck from space. I know we can see every marijuana field in Central America, every coca plantation in South America, and every poppy grow around the world. We know where most, if not all, of the new synthetic drugs are manufactured in China and which countries are importing the ingredients for methamphetamine. Have we bombed their countries back to the Stone Age? Have we dedicated the full might of the American military fighting force to invade their homelands and burn every plant, destroy every manufacturing site and kill anyone who gets in our way? That’s what a war looks like. What we have had, at best, is a police action, by very dedicated men and women who have worked tirelessly to save the lives of citizens and addicts, some to their last breath. The statement that it has been “all wrong” is a slap in their very tired faces.

When Director Botticelli said, “We can’t arrest and incarcerate addiction out of people”, he wasn’t even half right. Warehousing people and hoping that the fear of being re-incarcerated will end their addiction is the definition of stupidity. So I agree with him that far; and I agree that drug addiction is a disease of the brain. In many cases, it is a self-inflicted disease, which is why many have little sympathy for those afflicted. Director Botticelli is right when he says, “You know, we don’t expect people with cancer to stop having cancer”, but we also believe that most people don’t make a choice to participate in activities that give them cancer. Except for alcohol and tobacco use, both addictive substances, most people who end up with cancer didn’t do anything to contract the disease. This cannot be said for substance abuse. By his own analogy, the “war on cancer” must also be a failure, because the disease still exists. For many dealing with the disease of addiction, getting arrested is the first time they are forced to acknowledge that they have a problem. Arrests, more times than not, lead people to their first contact with rehabilitation services. Director Botticelli knows this, because he lived it. His 1988 DWI arrest story highlights the fact that arrests lead to rehabilitation for many. After his arrest, Director Botticelli admits he was forced to ask himself, “How did I get to this point, you know, in my life?” He explains that a “very wise judge” gave him the option of finding a treatment program or criminal proceedings. He chose at that moment to enter a twelve-step program at a local church. The Director seems to forget that, without the arrest, he would never have been forced to make that choice. I wonder, would he have found sobriety, or would he be where he is today? How was this “inhumane” (as the Director describes it)? I can’t count the number of people in my twenty years in drug law enforcement who have thanked me for saving their lives. Not for pulling them from a burning car. Not for stepping in front of a bullet aimed at them. For arresting them and helping them to find sobriety. They know they would be dead without it.

You have to understand that there is no cure for the disease of addiction. We teach people to put the disease in remission and get their lives back on track. They will then spend the rest of their lives treating that disease with counseling, programs, and resilience. I have nothing but the highest admiration for people who find sobriety; it is a life-long struggle with a disease that wants to kill you. It is the hardest battle of all with one’s own mind. I have spoken with many rehabilitation counselors and recovery community individuals, and they all say the same thing. They didn’t go willingly into rehabilitation. Most were forced, by either law enforcement or family, to acknowledge the disease, because the disease has such a profound effect on the brain’s ability to reason. That inability to reason is what leads to criminal behavior and continued drug use. If, as stated in the interview, “half of all federal inmates are in for drug crimes”, I guarantee that many of the remaining half are wrestling with the disease of addiction. Ask any police officer with time on the job, out of all of his cases (besides minor traffic), how many involve an individual who is an addict, and they will tell you 80% to 90%. Law enforcement doesn’t go out each day looking for addicts to arrest; they are our clients; many times, they are both suspect and victim. We don’t do this to be “inhumane”, we do it to help people and because it is our duty.

NARCAN and “Good Samaritan” laws are great for opium addiction when someone is dead or almost dead. They don’t, however, treat addiction or prevent people from making poor decisions which will impact the rest of their lives. Opium prescription drug abuse is not the fault of the “medical community”; the blame belongs to the marketing and training provided to the medical community by the companies that manufacture these drugs. Again, another story for another day. All substance abuse has two components: greed and the disease of addiction. Someone is always making a profit from someone else’s suffering. Greed can take the form of a local drug dealer, a drug cartel, a terrorist organization, a foreign company, or the U.S. pharmaceutical industry. No matter who they are – those causing this pain, this suffering, this great expense to government – those individuals deserve the full weight of the American judicial system. As Director Botticelli stated, the only thing worse would be local and state governments making this same profit in the form of taxes on marijuana, but greed has many forms.

There has been no war, so there has been no failure. The failure would be to not include all partners in a sound drug policy.