The Former Deputy Drug Czar Who's Changing the Perception of Addiction
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The Former Deputy Drug Czar Who’s Changing the Perception of Addiction

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Drug Czar“I think it’s a mistake to lump addiction with harmful use and early use. One policy won’t fit.”

The Government Hates the Gray Area

This is perhaps one of the last sentences you’d expect to leave the lips of a United States Deputy Drug Czar but then again, maybe that’s why today’s AfterPartyHero, Dr. A. Thomas McLellan, quietly resigned his post after only a year. The government has always been conservative and bureaucratic in its approaches to drug use and recovery, making McLellan’s forward-thinking ideas an imperfect fit. It’s those very same ideas that we applaud.

McLellan’s Journey

His achievements are many: born on Staten Island in 1949, he has lived much of his life as a psychologist and Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s also the CEO and co-founder of the non-profit Treatment Research Institute in Philadelphia. In addition to all that, he’s been an advisor for the World Health Organization and the American Psychiatric Association and served as Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment. As for his awards and other accolades—well, suffice it to say that there are simply too many to list here.

Though his resume is indeed impressive, it’s hardly the entire representation of his character. What makes McLellan such an interesting figure and potent force in the medical community is his unconventional education and personal history, both of which have resulted in an iconoclastic approach to recovery.

McLellan received an MS and PhD in experimental psychology but has also experienced many trials and tragedies at the hands of addiction in his own family: his wife is a recovering cocaine addict, he lost his youngest son to an overdose of anti-anxiety medication and alcohol and another son has gone through recovery for cocaine abuse.

Finding Humanity in Science

What this all has resulted in is a hearty dose of humanism to complement his hard-nosed scientific approach. He was the one who told the New Zealand Drug Foundation why a one-size-fits-all treatment plan couldn’t work, criticizing researchers for lacking nuance in their conclusions and specifically pointing out that treatment could be more effective if it were gendered (a position influenced by the fact that he earned his graduate degrees at the traditionally all-female Bryn Mawr, perhaps?) He speaks out about addiction when the opportunity seems right, such as in this widely shared HuffPo editorial on misguided moralizing when it comes to drug addicts, which he published in the wake of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s overdose.

Unafraid of Unconventional Views

McLellan also deserves to be commended for his lateral thinking on addiction issues that seem reminiscent of the philosophies expounded in Freakonomics. Using other diseases as examples, McLellan has called into question how addiction and pre-addiction issues exacerbate other health issues, a cunning strategic approach to convince governments and health care providers to take prevention more seriously. A shocking example he likes to cite is about breast cancer in women, specifically the fact that drinking habits are a better predictor of cancer than smoking habits, and possibly more of an agitator for existing tumors.

But it’s the moralism questioning where McLellan has most staked his claim. This is thorny territory for anyone, provoking questions about genetic determinism and even our own free will. McLellan, despite his own painful experiences, is able to attack this territory with surprising sensitivity and even humor. For these reasons and countless others, we honor him.

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About Author

Ryan Aliapoulios is a freelance writer and editor. He also hosts Dad Bops, the world's first intersectional vegan comedy podcast about dad music, available on iTunes and Soundcloud.