Obama’s drug policy chief pushes for a compassionate solution to the opioid crisis

Michael Botticelli doesn’t want to be known as the Obama administration’s “drug czar.”

That’s because Botticelli, the head of National Drug Control Policy at the White House, thinks that moniker calls back to the failed drug policies of other administrations, which he said haven’t focused enough time and energy on fighting addiction as a public health issue.

In a new interview on AMERICA with Jorge Ramos, Botticelli said he’s spent his tenure championing a more humane and compassionate approach to battling to ongoing heroin epidemic in the United States.

“The disease of addiction…is not people’s moral failing or a sign of character weakness, this is a deep-rooted disease that we can’t arrest and incarcerate our way out of,” Botticelli told Ramos.

It’s an issue that hits close to home for the White House official. Botticelli is the first person to serve as drug policy chief who’s lived through substance abuse recovery. After causing a car accident in 1988 while driving under the influence, Botticelli underwent a court-ordered treatment program for alcohol abuse. Now, he’s been sober for 27 years.

Although the rate of overdoses related to opioid abuse are on the rise, Botticelli said the administration is already seeing evidence that its policies are taking hold, saying they’ve seen reductions in doctors prescribing the powerful painkillers that can lead to heroin use. He’s also confident that the 21st Century Cures Act, the major healthcare legislation that passed with bipartisan congressional support this month, will only continue that momentum.

President Obama is slated to sign the bill, which contains provisions to fight opioid abuse, on Tuesday.

Asked about what role legalization could play in stemming the demand for illegal drugs crossing the Mexican border into the United States, Botticelli said one major miscalculation in the drug war was a focus only on cracking down only on the drug supply, rather than also addressing the demand for drugs at home.

“I don’t believe that legalization is really going to solve our drug use and its consequences in the United States,” he said. “One just has to look at the prescription drug issue we have here in the United States. These are not drugs that came across the border. These are drugs that came from our own medical community.”

So as the sun sets on the Obama administration, how does Botticelli want to be remembered for his drug policy work?

“I’ve been called the recovery czar. I think it shows drug policy can have a much more humane response,” he said. “We have to have a comprehensive response, and that’s been what this administration has tried to put forward.”