Learning From Robert Downey Jr. 

Learning From Robert Downey Jr. 
Posted by FoM on May 08, 2001 at 16:10:51 PT
By Joseph A. Califano Jr.
Source: Washington Post 
The relapses of actor Robert Downey Jr. and athlete Darryl Strawberry are being cited in supporting briefs of extremists at both ends of the drug policy debate: those arguing for legalization and those pressing to lock up addicts and throw away the keys until they cure themselves.These are hard cases, but we should not let them make bad policy. Both extremes are policies of despair that ignore the success of efforts to date and misread the lessons these tragic cases offer.
Drug use in the United States peaked in 1979 and 1980. Since then, despite the 55 million increase in the general population, the number of drug users has dropped 50 percent. If teen pregnancy, the incidence of new AIDS cases, domestic violence or breast cancer had plummeted 50 percent, corks would be popping across the nation in celebration.There are lessons to be derived from the tragic experiences of Downey and Strawberry. Lesson One is the need for more effective efforts to prevent experimentation with drugs such as marijuana. Downey was given his first joint at age 6 by a father who then thought it was "cute." Downey and Strawberry began their drug experience with marijuana and alcohol, as do virtually all individuals who get hooked on cocaine and heroin. The plight of these celebrities should remind us that the only sure way not to get hooked is not to experiment.Lesson Two is the need for research to discover how better to motivate addicts to enter treatment, stay there and continue in aftercare. President Bush's proposed budget increases of 16 percent for the National Institute on Drug Abuse and 11 percent for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism are steps in the right direction. But they fall far short of the kind of commitment this nation would make if we recognized that we are dealing with the country's number one disease and stopped stigmatizing addicts as modern-day lepers.To appreciate the difficulty of shaking an addiction, just think how hard it is to lose weight and keep it off for any extended period of time. Multiply that by a million to get a sense of what it is like to give up a drug forever after your brain has flipped on the addiction switch. A few weeks in a treatment program followed by prompt return to the stress of a weekly TV sitcom or major league pennant contender is an express ticket to relapse.Lesson Three is that both these guys are victims of the pressure to get back on the stage and playing field, expensive lawyers who got them out of coerced treatment well before they were able to lay a solid foundation for recovery, and the easy availability of drugs. Availability is a key factor in drug use. Downey and Strawberry easily got the stuff for a high once they were released or escaped from custody.Law enforcement that curbs availability can play a vital role in demand reduction. Stephen Gaghan, screenwriter for the film "Traffic" and a recovering addict, sought treatment out of desperation on the weekend that his dealer and his two backup dealers were arrested. Neither legalizing drugs nor locking up addicts without providing treatment makes any sense.There are two legal drugs in America -- alcohol and nicotine -- and we have more than 60 million nicotine addicts and some 15 to 20 million alcoholics. We have 4 million to 6 million regular illegal drug users, a number that would soar like Jack's beanstalk if marijuana, cocaine and heroin were as available as Budweiser, Marlboros and Jack Daniels. Such a step would be especially destructive to our children, since in our free society we have shown little ability to keep legal drugs such as beer and tobacco out of their hands.Locking up addicts without providing them treatment ensures their return to crime and incarceration. Alcohol and drug addicts released from prison without receiving treatment are almost certain to get high on their first day out and shortly thereafter to slip back into criminal conduct: robbery, assault, rape, selling drugs.Evaluations of drug courts by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University have found that coerced treatment works. Many prosecutors, such as Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hynes, believe treatment entered under fear of going to prison is often more effective than purely voluntary treatment. In this sense, the tragedy of Downey and Strawberry is not so much that they have been criminally charged; it is that their special status and access to high-powered lawyers denied them the motivation to accept appropriate treatment for a sufficiently long time (at least a year) to get their act together.The writer was secretary of health, education and welfare from 1977 to 1979. He is president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.Source: Washington Post (DC) Author: Joseph A. Califano Jr.Published: Tuesday, May 8, 2001; Page A23 Copyright: 2001 The Washington Post Company Contact: letterstoed washpost.comWebsite: Articles:Drugs, Downey, Strawberry, Junkies and Hypocrites War Against The War on Drugs Tells Story on 60 Minutes
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