News & Opinions

June 6, 2016  |  Interview

Exclusive Interview with Michael Botticelli

Michael Botticelli is the Acting Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) June, 2016  

Michael Botticelli, Acting Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) spoke to the Recovery Research Institute about Recovery Month and working for the ONDCP.  His responses below give our readership his perspective on treatment, recovery, and policy. 

The ONDCP holds a  focus on public health and public safety in regards to alcohol and drug use, calling attention to the importance of community-based prevention programs and effective healthcare and criminal justice policies. The ONDCP also regularly advises the President on current drug-control issues. 

How has your own personal experience contributed to your current work?  

“All I have to do is look back at my own experience, both positive and negative. I came from a really kind and loving family, but started drinking at a young age because that’s what I perceived all my peers doing and that drinking kind of continued through college, where you know, binge drinking was a part of the culture. I don’t recall when I was growing up anyone, whether it was a pediatrician, school nurse, or school counselor, saying to me like we do with other diseases, ‘you’re at risk here because you have a genetic predisposition to addiction’. I was doing what I thought everybody else was doing, and a lot of our prevention work is how do we diminish community normative behavior around alcohol and drug use particularly at a young age.

I knew I needed to stop drinking, but I didn’t see a happy life on the other side. How could I not drink at all? What kind of life am I going to have? There was no sense of visibility of a recovery community, so I think it really speaks to our work around visibility of a recovery community. How do we encourage more people to be open about their recovery? I remember how important it was for me to join a gym in early recovery because it got me involved in healthier activities. I started meeting a lot of people who weren’t hanging out at bars all the time.

I eventually found a recovery community; I just didn’t see it right away because of the 12-Step Tradition of anonymity. I think one of the things we are trying to promote is not only individual success in recovery but the concept of recovery communities and organizations that provide a level of visibility for people.”

What is a one sentence summary you would like to give the general public about recovery?

“Recovery is possible, and it restores people to a life that they could never imagine.”

Do you have any suggestions for ways to reach the public?

“We now have a significant expansion to recovery community organizations that really provide not only a place for people in recovery to go but they really provide a level of visibility in the community around recovery, and so let me give you an example from my Massachusetts experience that we started funding recovery centers in the community. It starts really focusing on looking at recovery as part of the community and the community norm, not the substance use side. We are trying to ingrain recovery into the community to change its visibility.

The other piece is we have been really encouraging people to basically come out about their own recovery.  I often phrase this from the stand point as looking at other highly stigmatized disease and we’ve really changed the course of that by people coming out about their own experience and their own recovery. So, I know a lot of work in the HIV world, and what really changed, and that’s not to say that all of the stigma is gone, but one of the ways that we reduce the stigma is by people coming out about being affected. And so we’ve really been trying to promote it.

I go back to it was our whole motivation and reason for doing a recovery event at the White House was how do we use the White House as an opportunity to really amplify the message to the general public and to the community that recovery is possible, that we represent the diversity of American people in terms of our own experience that we can be anybody, and still be affected by substance use disorders, and really overcome those addictions.”

What do you think is the ONDCP’s biggest accomplishment to date?

“We’ve really reframed and reformed drug policy. We’ve moved away from the criminal law enforcement approach and tried to embrace more of a public health approach to helping people with substance use disorders."

“The Affordable Care Act contains provisions to ensure that there is specific substance use disorder treatment benefits offered at parity with other medical benefits that plans offer. I would say that one flows from the other but one is really re-framing drug use issues here at a public health, a fundamental public health issue. And second, dramatically expanding coverage for people to make sure we are diminishing the treatment gap that we have.”

Do you have any recommendations for ways the public can get involved or support the work that the ONDCP is doing?

“We really want to encourage people to speak openly and candidly about their recovery. I have not yet met a family who has not been impacted by substance use disorders or addictions. Speaking openly fundamentally changes the conversation and the way that we address those issues. I would love to see people get involved in advocacy at the state and local levels. I think it’s really important and I think it’s a building coalition to really help change people’s perceptions and change people’s policies. So for instance, this is recovery month, there are activities happening all over the country, and we want people to participate in these events so where we have walks, and marches, and presentations, so I think there are simple things that people can do to really dramatically change the issues that we have here.”

“There are also simple things that people can do to dramatically change the issues around substance use like the role of language. Language can be highly stigmatizing so we encourage people to change their language, not calling people addicts, or junkies, but that this is a disease that we need to destigmatize.”

What are some barriers and challenges that people entering recovery may face? Can you share ways that the White House and ONDCP are working to reduce these barriers?

“There are barriers such as changing federal, state, and local regulations. But topics that often come up are access to stable housing and access to employment opportunities. The ‘Ban the Box’ initiatives have been implemented to help overcome the employment barrier. Instead of indicating to a potential employer his/her criminal background, that type of information is disclosed at the end of an interview, giving the individual a more reasonable and fair interview process.

Another barrier the ONDCP has tackled is providing clarifying information to debunk and eliminate the myth that an individual is ineligible for a federal student loan if he/she has a criminal record as a result of substance use. The ONDCP and the Department of Education created a fact sheet for citizens in order to deflate this falsified idea. It goes beyond education, it’s really changing federal regulations, state regulations, local regulations.”

What is one piece of advice that you would tell someone in early recovery?

“I’m stealing this line…it gets better. And it gets great. That doesn’t mean that you don’t experience all the problems that life brings…but you get to be a full participant in your life.”

Is there anything else you wanted to highlight?

“Well, here’s the other piece for me too, and I really do believe this. Part of what we all have to do is ensuring the recovery voice and people who are personally affected by this, are part of our policies programmatic development, and that extends to the White House Office for National Drug Control Policy, but that should be part of everybody’s work to ensuring that people in recovery have a place at policy tables and decision-making points at the state and local level.”

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