MINOT, N.D. (AP) — As the nation’s drug czar continues to warn people about the potential death and destruction from substance abuse, he’s also encouraging them to tell their stories about treatment and recovery. Usually he starts with himself.
Michael Botticelli, acting director of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, also embraces another title: “I’m one of 23 million Americans in recovery who have gone on to live productive lives.”
He has been sober for a quarter of a century. He has been drug czar for a quarter of a year.
“We’ve been encouraging, not just with me, but with other people, to tell their stories,” Botticelli said Tuesday in an interview with The Associated Press. “Tell me a family that hasn’t been affected by substance abuse. I haven’t met one.”
Botticelli, who was in North Dakota to announce updates to the administration’s northern border control policy and focus on combating drug crimes in the oil patch, said his office has seen a dramatic shift from a justice-driven strategy to a treatment-driven one. Federal funding for prevention, treatment and recovery is at its highest level in 12 years, he said.
“We are actually spending more now on domestic public health strategies than we are on incarceration strategies,” Botticelli said. “There’s a large acknowledgement that we can’t arrest and incarcerate our way out of the problem.”
U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, of North Dakota, said police officers in oil country are arresting people with substance abuse problems who don’t belong in jail because there’s no other option. She cited three people with behavioral health issues in Fargo, in eastern North Dakota, who are going to cost taxpayers $2 million over a couple of years, mostly on trips to the emergency room.
“We can do all of the supply side work, which is what we’re really talking about,” Heitkamp said, referring to crime-fighting initiatives. “But we’ve really got to do the demand side work that is really going to take this problem down.”
Botticelli acknowledged the difficulty of getting public health services to people in rural areas such as North Dakota.
“It’s an issue I think we need to spend more time on in D.C.,” he said. “How do we make sure we cover those communities that don’t have treatment programs?”
Several prominent drug cases in North Dakota in the last two years have involved overdose deaths, including a popular Fargo blues musician who died from heroin and two teenagers who died after ingesting synthetic drugs. Officials say abuse of prescription drugs continues to rise as well. A survey cited earlier this year by North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem showed that prescription drugs are the third-most abused drug in the state, behind alcohol and marijuana.
Botticelli, who began recovery after he was arrested for drunken driving in 1988, considers himself fortunate. He looks at U.S. statistics showing 110 people a day dying from drug overdoses and thinks of doctors who never asked him if he had a history of substance abuse.
“I think about my own experience, relative to that,” he said. “I wonder, as a lot of people do, if there were prescriptions drugs like that, and I had been prescribed prescription drugs during the height of my own addiction, what would have happened.”
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