He's a gay, recovering alcoholic who thinks drug users need medical help, not prison time.
For the past 40 years, our country's approach to drug enforcement has been hard-assed, misinformed and wildly ineffective. And now, many trillions of dollars later, we've got nothing to show for our long-waged "war on drugs." Prisons are overcrowded with non-violent drug offenders, there's a new heroin epidemic and more people are dying because of prescription drug overdoses than from car crashes or gun violence. Drug abuse rates hold steady, and it's become overwhelmingly obvious that whatever approach we're taking to curb them isn't working.
It's time for a change, and that change is coming in the form of cool-guy about town Michael Botticelli, the president's new Director of National Drug Control policy.
Botticelli is not a cop. He's not a white-collar DEA operative. He's just a regular old gay, ex-alcoholic who thinks the war on drugs is a joke, and wants to reform the country's entire approach towards drug policy.
In an interview with 60 Minutes, Botticelli introduces his radical new approach, saying, "The war on drugs is all wrong. Blunt force didn't knock out the drug epidemic. Twenty-one million Americans are addicted to drugs or alcohol. And half of all federal inmates are in for drug crimes. We can't arrest and incarcerate addiction out of people. Not only do I think it's really inhumane, but it's ineffective and it costs us billions upon billions of dollars to keep doing this."
Damn! Cool dad alert. We can almost picture him now, listening to Rush on his docked speedboat called "Fertility Train," spilling virgin margaritas on his Hawaiian shirt as he systematically rewires our country's opinion of drug offenders.
He also shows a great deal of empathy for those struggling with drugs by acknowledging addiction as a brain disease, as opposed to a criminal act: "We've learned addiction is a brain disease, " he said. "This is not a moral failing. This is not about bad people who are choosing to continue to use drugs because they lack willpower. You know, we don't expect people with cancer just to stop having cancer."
Echoing the retired war on drugs mentality, interviewer Scott Pelly asked him, "Aren't they doing it to themselves? Isn't a heroin addict making that choice?" to which Botticelli replied, "Of course not. You know, the hallmark of addiction is that it changes your brain chemistry. It actually affects that part of your brain that's responsible for judgment."
That addicts should be patients, not prisoners, is the underlying principle behind Botticelli's approach. He's used this idea successfully in Massachusetts as Director of Substance Abuse Services, where he oversaw a program for high school teens in recovery in which they could choose treatment over jail. If they chose treatment, they could have their charges dropped, thus keeping them out of the dangerous downward spiral of the criminal justice system.
Another one of Botticelli's goals is to reduce prescription drug overuse, which, if you ask us, is a much better focus than going after drugs that are far less abused like marijuana or LSD.
"We have a medical community that gets little training on pain, gets little training on addiction, and quite honestly has been promoting and continues to promote the overprescribing of these pain medications," he says in the same 60 Minutes interview.
God, why is this man so cool? Rad dad Botticelli is so understanding and progressive because he himself is a recovering addict. In 1988, he was a university administrator and a barely functioning alcoholic who hit rock bottom after his car slammed into a truck one night when he was wasted. By that point, he'd been a drunk for years, but the accident motivated him to get help, and he's been sober for 27 years.
Weirdly though, for all his empathy for drug users and personal experience with addiction, he's not down for legal weed.
"I'm not a fan," he said. "What we've seen, quite honestly, is a dramatic decrease in the perception of risk among youth around occasional marijuana use. And they are getting the message that because it's legal, that it is, there's no harm associated with it. So, we know that about one in nine people who use marijuana become addicted to marijuana. It's been associated with poor academic performance, in exacerbating mental health conditions linked to lower IQ." Apart from his opinion that weed has negative health impacts (which is a heavily contested belief), he also feels that states will become too dependent on marijuana tax revenue.
OK. STOP THE COOL TRAIN RIGHT THERE, GUY.
We mean if you reeeaaalllly wanna play devil's advocate and try to see where Botticelli is coming from on this, relying on marijuana for state income may be a bad idea if future research confirms there are hidden dangers to the drug we've overlooked. There is, after all, some evidence that heavy marijuana use may exacerbate mental illness in certain people and facilitate dependency in others. However, the majority of scientific literature about marijuana seems to tout its therapeutic benefits and makes the argument that legalized weed offers government agencies the opportunity to standardize and regulate it in way that's much safer than is possible when it's sold illegally on the black market.
If you want to go even deeper, data from both Colorado and Washington has shown that since the legalization of recreational marijuana, crime rates have fallen and certain institutions like schools have benefited from the tax money. In our opinion, revitalizing state economies and schools with weed money is much better than their current state of constant fiscal deprivation. It doesn't matter where the money comes from, just that it goes to the right places, but … hey. We're not chill man of the hour Michael Botticelli.
All in all, while Botticelli might present some very favorable approaches toward handling addiction and helping people with drug crime charges, he also may be the country's biggest threat to federally legalized weed.
If you need a summary of all that, here's a somewhat contrived White House video of him explaining his anti-war-on-drugs stance and how he'd like to reform drug policy today. Whether it makes you want to throw tomatoes at him or hug his calves like a small, grateful child, is up to you, but either way, you can't deny that he probably loves Spring Break and Aerosmith.