Darryl Strawberry will be sentenced in Tampa tomorrow for violating probation, and a lot of people are rooting for heavy punishment. The details of his seemingly fruitless battle with drug addiction have left the public understandably fed up. To some, the downward spirals of Strawberry and also actor Robert Downey Jr. epitomize the arrogant abuse of fame, money and talent.
Both men have unquestionably hurt themselves, their families and friends in their battles against addiction. But on a larger scale, their tragic affairs with drugs are even more harmful, because they have the potential to damage the recoveries of millions of Americans who wage similar battles with drugs and alcohol. As public opinion drives public policy, the attitude toward addiction may slip into intolerance, blame and punishment.
Throughout history, drug and alcohol abuse have been viewed within a moral model where the abuser is seen as weak, undisciplined and lacking in character. The trouble is, blaming the individual creates little incentive for change.
Much progress has been made recently in understanding the complexities of addiction and its genetic, biological, psychological and social causes. While no clear or easy explanation exists to account for it, we now know that addiction is a chronic relapsing disorder.
We also know that recovery from addiction has inevitable starts and stops, ups and downs. Virtually everyone who has successfully quit smoking cigarettes knows that recovery is the proverbial two steps forward, one step back.
Just as we do not blame the cancer patient when a reoccurrence occurs, we must not blame the addict when a relapse takes place during treatment. At the same time, we should hold the addict accountable for sticking with treatment.
The public focus on the Strawberry and Downey cases comes at a crucial time. Last week, President Bush announced his choice for drug czar, John Walters, who last served in the Office of National Drug Control Policy as deputy to William Bennett. That was in the first Bush administration, and since then, our knowledge of addiction – what drives it, how best to prevent and treat it – has grown significantly.
Recognizing drug addiction as a relapsing disorder that responds to treatment is a crucial first step for this new administration.
Walters is reportedly in favor of stiff prison sentences for repeat offenders, violent felons and marijuana smugglers, but takes a more lenient position toward first-time offenders. Those of us in the front line of treatment can only hope that he will take the time to understand what we have learned during the past decade about the critical role of treatment in reducing the demand for drugs.
Interdiction and law enforcement alone will never be enough to stem the tide of addiction in America. It is therefore with a sense of urgency – but also of optimism – that some of us in the treatment community look to Bush and Walters to develop a national drug policy that supports treatment as sound, not soft, public policy.