Saturday, January 24, 2009

Well said, in Washington

The Bush years, by wide consensus, were a dismal era for science.  But by a strange paradox, some bright stars emerged in what is normally a dismal field under any administration: addiction science.  

One is the brilliant Nora Volkow, who brings a rare mix of research experience, clear thinking, and leadership ability to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).  

Another is Mark Willenbring, Director of the Division of Treatment and Recovery Research at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).  In a letter to the current New Yorker (the one with the cartoon of Obama as George Washington on the cover), Willenbring precisely skewers a piece that this normally astute mag published in its December 1 issue.  The article, titled "Special Treatment," by Amanda Fortini, featured a Los Angeles area deluxe treatment facility.  

After a string of well-worn 12-step platitudes about addiction and the difficulties of recovery, the owners of the facility claimed that in essence treatment could make no difference, everything depended on the addicted person's motivation.  So why bill the client for clinical services on top of the normal cost of luxury room and board? 

Willenbring's letter goes directly for the jugular.  He writes that the piece:
... shows the irony that paying more does not guarantee access to the most current therapies... The program that Fortini describes appears to base its services on a treatment model that is more than thirty years old .... Although clients may or may not receive some benefit, they are vulnerable to unnecessary relapse risk if more contemporary treatments are not also made available.  For example, research funded by the National Institutes of Health has identified several medications that reduce relapse in early recovery from alcohol dependence.  Newer behavioral approaches, such as cognitive-behavior therapy and motivational interviewing, also increase recovery and provide alternatives to the traditional Twelve Step approach (which in updated form is also effective).  This menu of services makes possible truly individualized treament and  increases client choice and engagement, but only if people have access to it.
The treatment program Fortini described in her article was so clinically clueless and bereft of ideas that the piece might have been a subliminal parody.  It isn't often that I get to cheer somebody in Washington for saying the right stuff.  Could this be the beginning of a change we can believe in?  

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Congratulations to Barack Obama

As a college student at Wesleyan in '61 (or was it '62?) I joined with other white students to team with groups of black students from Howard University in an effort to integrate lunch counters in Glen Burnie, a suburb of Baltimore.  In some places we sat indefinitely without being served; in one, we were served coffee with salt in it; at another they locked the doors as we approached.  When we picketed the segregated local movie theatre, a mob of white men surrounded us as sheriffs watched.  A providential cloudburst scattered the crowd and allowed us to escape.  

On the night of election day in 1964, I arrived at the civil rights movement headquarters in Jackson, Mississippi, to begin a few months of volunteer work.  Nearly everyone was glued to the TV set to see whether the Democratic Party would seat the elected black delegates running under the banner of the Freedom Democratic Party.  The answer was, no.  

These and other memories came upwelling as I watched the inauguration of Barack Obama.   The party that wouldn't seat elected black delegates had nominated a black man for president.  A man whose father would not have been served at DC area restaurants 60 years ago was taking the oath of office.   Indeed, there has been some changes.

This morning's San Francisco Chronicle editorializes that Obama's new approach is "grounded in sobriety and hard work."  The "sobriety" that's meant here is, I assume, the metaphorical kind -- a pragmatic, realistic attitude -- and not the literal kind, meaning abstinence from alcoholic drink.  Yet there's a connection to reflect on, here.  

For me, personally, my time of active engagement in the civil rights movement was largely a time when my alcoholism (acquired in my freshman year in college) was in remission.  Engagement in life-changing work was hugely more interesting than drink.  My drinking habit only bloomed large during the years of reaction that followed, when it seemed that everything we had done was being undone.  Pessimism, despair, lack of hope were the atmosphere in which this illness flourished.  And I'm not the only one.  Is it an accident that the drug problem grew larger in rough proportion as conditions for the poor and middle class in America stagnated and deteriorated?  

Barack Obama's own history with alcohol and other drugs offers a refreshing contrast to that of his predecessor in office.  Obama has freely and openly admitted experimenting with drugs as a youth, but then stopped; he is trying to quit, or has quit, smoking.  What a contrast to the history of "W," whose claimed mid-life alcohol salvation story is widely believed to be a sham that covered up more than it revealed, notably a long history of cocaine use, some say.  

I've not yet seen anything in the way of Obama's statements so far that gives a clue to his specific policies on alcoholism and other addictions.  The federal government has many levers to pull and many dollars to spend in this area.  On general principles, I assume that Obama will support the recent extension of parity in the treatment of mental health and addiction treatment.  I assume that the federal agencies in this area will continue to be funded.  

The open questions in my mind are (a)  War on Drugs, and (b) Federal excise taxes on spirits and tobacco.  We need "change we can believe in" in the "war on drugs," a criminal exercise in hypocrisy and racial/economic persecution that is long overdue for radical reform.  An even more telling mark of Obama's mettle will be whether he supports Congressional action to raise the excise taxes on liquor and tobacco.  Public health advocates have long maintained that raising these taxes is the single most effective measure to reduce the social impact of these two most murderous addictive drugs.  Needless to say, the pillars of corporate greed stand deeply dug in on this issue.

The largest opening in the clouds under this new administration will be in the area of improving living standards and reducing inequities for the poor and middle class.  If the real and emotional environment of ordinary people in this country becomes infused with progress and hope, the problems of alcohol and other drugs will recede as if of their own accord.  It will take some time, but if the new administration succeeds in this largest and most difficult of goals, we will, in fact, see a new era of "sobriety" in both senses of the word.

Congratulations to President Barack Obama, and best wishes for the future.

P.S.  To date, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy remains under an interim head, Patrick Ward, a Bush appointee who has held the post a bit over a year.  Obama's choice of Rep. Jim Ramstad to become the new Drug Czar has run into heavy fire for Ramstad's ties to abusive "faith-based" programs, his policy positions on prevention, and his ties to a massive investor fraud.  Read Maia Szalavitz's blog blast and the Drug Policy Alliance editorial.  Ramstad is not change, he's MOTSOS.