Visiting Baltimore last week, President Bush shared his personal struggles against alcohol addiction with former prisoners in recovery who are enrolled in Jericho, a program to help them re-enter productively into society. Mr. Bush recounted having given up alcohol the day after his 40th birthday, after a "particularly boozy night." He often credits his Christian faith for giving him the strength to stay sober.
Although his presidency is almost over, it's not too late for Mr. Bush to do much good as a role model and advocate for people recovering from addiction. To succeed, he will have to keep a few things in mind:
Drug misuse doesn't discriminate, but our drug policies do.
George W. Bush, Al Gore III, Rush Limbaugh and Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy all remind us that anyone can be susceptible to drug problems; addiction does not discriminate. Unfortunately, our drug policies do. Despite similar rates of drug use, blacks go to jail at 13 times the rate of whites. In New York state, 91 percent of the people incarcerated under the draconian Rockefeller drug laws are black or Latino - grossly disproportionate to their share of the population or involvement in illegal drug use and sales. Too often, treatment is reserved for the privileged, jail for the poor.
Most families will confront addiction at some point.
Almost every family in America has had to deal with drug addiction or has experienced "collateral damage" from the drug war. President Bush is not the only Bush to have had serious problems with addiction. His niece Noelle Bush was arrested for trying to fill a fake prescription for Xanax. While in a treatment program, she was busted for crack cocaine.
Fortunately for her, she was able to get help without being forced to spend years of her life behind bars. Millions of other people without money or powerful connections - including many thousands in Baltimore - are not as lucky. Millions nationwide have a loved one behind bars on drug charges, and millions more have struggled themselves with addiction to illegal or legal drugs. By declaring a "war on drugs," we have declared a war on ourselves.
There are many effective strategies for dealing with addiction.
Mr. Bush was able to give up his drinking "cold turkey" and used his faith to help himself. Millions use abstinence programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous when trying to give up drugs. Some people give up one addiction, such as heroin, but may still hold on to smoking marijuana or cigarettes. Many people who quit a drug will relapse one or more times before finding the strength to quit again. There are many pathways and strategies for dealing with an addiction. There is no "one size fits all" approach.
Current administration policies emphasize prison and punishment over compassion and treatment.
Mr. Bush's words of encouragement to the men he encountered at Jericho were well-intentioned. But actions are better than words, and the government could do a few things that would make a huge difference in the lives of drug offenders.
One would think that Mr. Bush's personal struggles would have him advocate for treatment over jail and punishment. "Addiction is hard to overcome," Mr. Bush told the ex-offenders, and that's true. But maybe it would be a little easier if the government were to put more resources into treatment. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, only 35 percent of the federal drug control budget is spent on education, prevention and treatment combined, with the remaining 65 percent devoted to law enforcement efforts.
Our drug policies have led to the United States' becoming the world leader in incarceration. We have 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of all the world's prisoners, with more than 2.3 million in prisons and jails, more per capita than Russia, Belarus or China. Of that 2.3 million, about 500,000 are incarcerated on drug charges.
I appreciate President Bush's opening up and sharing his struggles with drug addiction. (Yes, alcohol is a drug.) It is helpful to remind people that addiction is an issue that so many of us have had to deal with - that spares no one.
I just wish that his personal experiences would give him the wisdom and courage to advocate generous and caring drug policies for everyone.
Tony Newman is the director of media relations for the Drug Policy Alliance. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
DRUGS AND CRIME IN MARYLAND
Number of adults in Maryland involved in the criminal justice system (prison, probation and parole): 113,122.
Maryland adult prison population: 22,682.
Proportion of Maryland prisoners incarcerated for a drug offense: 22 percent.
In Baltimore, nearly one in five African-American men ages 20 to 30 is in custody. Statewide, the number is one in 10.
For every dollar the state spends on incarceration for drug offenses, it spends 26 cents on drug treatment.
Officials estimate that about 25,000 addicts receive treatment in Baltimore annually, but perhaps 30,000 more go untreated.
Note: Figures are from 2005 and 2006.
[Source: Justice Policy Institute]