AfterParty Hero: The Drug Czar Who Brings 25 Years of Recovery To the White House
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AfterParty Hero: The Drug Czar Who Brings 25 Years of Recovery To the White House


Today’s After Party Hero, Michael Botticelli, has taken his own personal after party all the way to the White House. Botticelli, the Obama administration’s current drug czar, is a recovering alcoholic with 25 years sober. Botticelli’s personal battle with addiction has shaped his approach as Acting Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The 56-year-old has lived his fair share of laugh-until-you-cry alcoholic tales. He lost an early job as a bartender when he repeatedly showed up for a drink during the same shifts he’d told his manager he couldn’t work. In the 80s he frequented Boston’s gay bar scene and often stayed up drinking until dawn. On one such night, he drunkenly drove into a disabled truck on the Mass Turnpike and wound up handcuffed to a hospital bed with a state trooper guarding him.

Though he lost his license, court-ordered AA and classes didn’t end his descent into desperation. But after befriending a man in recovery and getting evicted from his home, Botticelli mustered the humility to admit he was in fact an alcoholic. This time when he went to AA, at an LGBT meeting in a church basement, it clicked.

In recovery, Botticelli left the world of education for a career in public health, focusing first on AIDS and later on addiction. Before coming to Washington, Botticelli served as director of the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services within the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. There he helped craft policies that armed police with naloxone and helped recovering addicts secure housing and jobs fresh out of treatment. Above all, he believes substance abuse should be treated as a public health issue rather than one of criminal justice.

Botticelli is only the “acting” drug czar, stepping in when his predecessor Gil Kerlikowske became Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection in March. He doesn’t know whether he’ll get nominated to take over the position permanently. But he does recognize the special perspective he brings to the role. Botticelli is the first person in recovery to spearhead U.S. drug policy—a job typically held by doctors or law enforcement officials. But he’s a good fit for this administration, which has witnessed a paradigm shift from the old War on Drugs stance to a more compassionate approach that prioritizes prevention, treatment and education.

It’s a job that requires juggling many plates. Between the national opiate epidemic, the complexity of marijuana legalization, and the issues surrounding treatment coverage in the wake of the Affordable Care Act, he’s certainly got his hands full. But where he really shines is in his face to face interactions with the people whose interests he must take into account.

As he travels around the nation to meet with politicians, law enforcement officers and medical professionals, he also visits treatment centers and attends meetings in different cities. Addicts and alcoholics—his “peeps,” as he dubs them—connect with his story, and he encourages them to persevere in their recovery and not be ashamed to take baby steps. After all, handcuffed to that hospital bed he never could have imagined being where he is today.

“When I first came here, all I wanted to do was not drink and have my problems go away,” he told a group in Boston. “I’m standing here 25 years later, working at the White House. And if you had asked me 25 years ago when I came to my first meeting here if that was a possibility, I would’ve said you’re crazy. But I think it just demonstrates what the power of recovery is.”

Photo courtesy of US Federal Government ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (resized and cropped)

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About Author

Erica Larsen AKA Eren Harris blogs at Whitney Calls and Clean Bright Day. Their writing has also been published on Salon, Selfish, Violet Rising and YourTango. They live in Los Angeles with their husband and their enormous cat.