I think it has failed because it has emphasized tough law enforcement and interdiction at the expense of the third leg of the stool, which is treatment and recovery. So I think that for the war on drugs to succeed, we need to see addiction for what it is: a health care problem that has impacted all of America. Baltimore has been on the cutting edge of this. Things like drug courts are a vital component to a successful struggle against this illness.
Don't get me wrong. Not for one minute am I advocating letting people like me off the hook when we break the law. But we should use the criminal justice system to help addicts and alcoholics get through their denial and get help. Too much of the war on drugs is about waging war on the victims of this disease, including the addicts and alcoholics who are committing crimes. Addiction is not an excuse, but it is an explanation. If you do the crime, you do the time, whether you are stone cold sober or stoned out of your mind. But the criminal justice system should be part of the solution, holding people accountable to get help. So do you think the war on drugs will not be won until the demand for those drugs is eliminated?
I am the prime example of how that works. I have not demanded opium from Afghanistan or cocaine from Colombia for 12 years now. This is such a hot-button topic, people often misconstrue what I am saying.
The war on drugs is a three-legged stool and those legs need to be equal if it is going to be won. Roughly 18 percent of the federal drug budget goes into prevention, research and treatment, the rest into interdiction and law enforcement. The DEA paradigm is to haul bales of marijuana before the TV cameras, not to parade recovering people before the cameras. So I understand why the war-on-drugs mentality exists, but [it] is crazy.
One of the most poignant sections of your book deals with the moment you started, finally, on the succesful road to recovery. In your failed attempts, you had been sure you could do it, wanted to be the best in your class of recovering addicts. Your eventual success seemed to involve a paradox, that you could not do this until you gave up trying to do it. How do you explain that?
I never gave up; what I did was give in to the reality that I could not succeed on my own. My recovery depended on my God, on the professional counselors and my personal commitment that included the 12 steps. On that day -- Oct. 12, 1994, 12 years ago almost to the day -- in a crack house in Atlanta, I was faced with this seemingly simple question without a simple answer: Now what? I had to finally stop doing it my way. It was a remarkable moment of clarity for a guy who was raised to think I could do anything I wanted as long as I put my mind to it. But in this case, I was defeated. I've embraced a saying from a noted general, that it takes great courage to surrender.
For me, it's not about quitting, not about giving up, but about giving in. Addicts need to take responsibility for the disease of denial. Addiction is the only disease I know of that can convince somebody that they don't have it, and that they know the best way to treat it. They don't. One thing that is clear in your book is that in going into journalism, you were constantly competing with your father, and doomed to failure, leading to a pain you assuaged with drugs and alcohol. Was finally taking a different path that that of your father essential to your recovery?
You know, my father said to me in an e-mail the other day, "Do you realize you have saved more lives in your life than I have in mine?"
I don't compete with my father anymore. I don't need to.