How do we know what humanity lies hidden underneath the rags and filth of a mangled life?

A recent article in The Nation described my well-discussed theme about how locking up people with alcohol and drug problems is a waste of money, poor public policy and inhumane. I’ve written about how we should educate prisoners and what books and articles people should read in order to learn more about criminal justice policy. One of my favorite facts is this: in NJ, it costs about $55,000 to incarcerate someone and about $12,000 to treat them in drug court (and drug court gets better results).

I am a fourth generation English teacher and a second generation college professor. For a time, I considered getting a PhD in English in order to pursue a career as a Professor of Shakespeare. Alas, my life took a different direction (that has worked out very well). I still read widely and go to the theater a few times a month. Last summer, I went to see Our Country’s Good at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis with my mother’s cousin Anne and her husband Phil.

The play is set in Australia in the 1790’s. The English penal colony has just been set up and the Governor, Captain Phillips, has encouraged 2nd Lieutenant Ralph Clark to work with the prisoners and put on a play for the entertainment of the entire colony. A number of the officers are disgusted by this and have threatened to mutiny. The prisoners are looked on as less than human (some of them are serving seven year terms for stealing food because they were hungry). There is an incredible scene at the beginning of Act II in which Captain Phillips advises Lt. Clark to continue with the play, despite the protests of the other officers.

Phillips: If you break conventions, it’s inevitable you make enemies, Lieutenant. This play irritates them.
Ralph: Yes and I —
Phillips: Socrates irritated the state of Athens and was put to death for it.
Ralph: Sir —
Phillips: Would you want a world without Socrates?
Ralph: Sir —
Philips: In the Meno, one of Plato’s great dialogues, Socrates demonstrates that a slave boy can learn the principles of geometry as well as a gentleman.
Ralph: Ah —
Phillips: In other words, he shows that human beings have an intelligence which has nothing to do with the circumstances into which they are born.

Ralph: Sir —

Phillips: Sit down, Lieutenant. It is a matter of reminding the slave of what he knows, of his own intelligence. And by intelligence you may read goodness, talent, the innate qualities of human beings.

Ralph: I see — Sir

Phillips: When he treats the slave boy as a rational human being, the boy becomes one, he loses his fear, and he becomes a competent mathematician. A little more encouragement and he might become an extraordinary mathematician. Who knows? You must see your actors in that light…..How do we know what humanity lies hidden under the rags and filth of a mangled life?

How do we indeed? Americans love the story of a life redeemed. The bad boy (or girl) turned good. We are nation of second chances and third acts. We need to take this approach with those that have a substance abuse problem.



Governor Christie sets aside .0037 of 1% of the State Budget for Prevention and Treatment in a BIG Announcement Today

Governor Christie announced that he is setting aside $12 million for prevention and treatment services in NJ. You can read about it here.

This is a good start. FAR more funding is needed, but again, he continues to say the right things and at least he has put some money up (before people get too excited, this is for 12 million dollars – the NJ State budget is 32.5 billion, so this is .00003692307 of our budget).


Governor Christie’s Sound and Fury, Which Signifies Nothing

On September 17th, Senator Joe Vitale introduced 21 bills to combat the heroin and opiate painkiller epidemic and provide better prevention and treatment services. Governor Christie has not only failed to support those bills, he hasn’t even acknowledged their existence.

On September 30th, there was a celebration regarding the opening of the first recovery high school in NJ. Governor Christie was not there. Nor has he directed any state funding towards the school. That same day, the Governor held a summit at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark about reducing the stigma associated with treatment and recovery from addiction. He said a lot of nice things, but didn’t talk at all about the new recovery high school opening up down the road nor offer up any substantive support on Vitale’s bills.

On October 7th, Governor Christie appeared at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in New Brunswick to announce a partnership with neighboring states to share prescription drug monitoring program (PMP) information. This was a positive move, but it was also something that his Deputy Attorney General recommended in 2012. The Governor also continued to refuse to mandate NJ’s PMP, despite the fact that the GCADA’s Task Force report suggested it earlier this year (and also despite the fact that over 20% of other states have mandated PMP’s).

On October 9th, the Governor appeared in Trenton to announce the formation of yet another Task Force to fight drug addiction. He did not comment on any of Vitale’s 21 bills, the recovery high school or offer any funding for programs that he has claimed to support (drug courts, prisoner education, PMP’s).

And he won’t anytime in the future. He will now fall back on the fact that he has created a Task Force and that he needs to let them operate for awhile, hold hearings and gather information. They will need time to release a report, and he will say that this is a serious public concern that requires time, deliberation and careful consideration of the multifaceted issues and various stakeholders involved. He will delay legislation and the funding of any current or new programs. It’s all sound and fury, and it gets him a lot of positive press while he actually does very little to change things. The saddest and most frustrating aspect of this is that he already had a Task Force that did this, and we released a report too (you can read it here). Despite serving on the Governor’s Council, I have been highly critical of the Governor’s bluster on these issues. I understand that almost no one will win or lose an election based on how they handle drug policy. In Chapter 18 of The Prince, Machiavelli wrote:

Pope Alexander VI had no care or thought but how to deceive, and always found material to work on. No man ever had a more effective manner of asseverating, or made promises with more solemn protestations, or observed them less. And yet, because he understood this side of human nature, his frauds always succeeded.

It applies perfectly to Governor Christie, at least when it comes to his drug and alcohol policies. I’ve quoted Shakespeare a few times in this piece, and I’ll provide the full quote from Macbeth from whence I grabbed the title. Interestingly enough, it both describes and quotes Christie:

it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, which signifies nothing

What You Can Do To Help

Every week, at least a half dozen people approach me, email me or call me asking for advice about what they can do to help address drug and alcohol problems in their town, county, state or country. I’m always happy to answer those questions, but I decided that it was time for me to write out a list of options and directions for people to look at and work off of. Here are 12 suggestions:

(1) Every town that has over 10,000 people should have a prescription drug drop box (Usually they are at police stations. To learn more about them, click here. For help getting one put in your town or county, click here).

(2) We need advocates to tell their stories to politicians, government officials, school administrators, parent groups, students and a host of professionals. In NJ, there is an Advocacy Leadership Program that takes a new class every year. You don’t have to be a person in recovery to have a story worth telling – you can be the parent or spouse or child or friend of someone who found the joys of recovery or died from this public health problem.

(3) We don’t really need new organizations. Join an existing one. Many municipalities and most counties have anti-drug coalitions that engage in a lot of prevention work. This is a great point of entry into the field, an easy way to make a difference and a fantastic way to build your network if you want to eventually do more.

(4) Let’s say you have a lot of money and want to make your own organization. Talk to your lawyer and accountant. Then find some influential people in your county and state to talk to. They should be able to give you some good advice about existing programs. I strongly urge you to join an already established group. There are plenty of 501C3 organizations that have some good people working there but they need better organization skills, publicity and/or more funding.

(5) You still want to create your own organization. You better find a really great person with a lot of experience to run it. And you need to be prepared for the fact that you are probably going to lose money.

(6) There are a lot of great programs that need fundraising help. I can steer you towards them in NJ or wherever you live. Of course, one of my favorites is the Rutgers ADAP and Recovery House program. If you want to raise money or donate to them, I’ll be happy to put you in touch with the right people.

(7) If you have been clean and sober for two years and have decided that you want to work in this field, I suggest that you get an entry level job (part time or full time) at a halfway house or in-patient program. Work several months on nights and weekends. Interact with clients. Drive them to appointments and meetings. Sit in on groups and watch great and lousy counselors. Accept the fact that the hours are long and the pay is bad (and will be for a long time if you decide to continue this work). For those of you that don’t have an addiction disorder but want to do this work, you can still follow this advice step by step.

(8) Take a couple of professional courses (in NJ, they are called CADC courses; in NY they are CADAC courses). The Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies offers courses year round on Thursdays and has a one week summer school. You will be exposed to new ideas and meet a number of other people like you (some of whom will be further along and can offer you their experience in this process).

(9) Middle school and high school curricula do a poor job at addressing the prescription drug problem. You can urge your local school board to bring in some programming (for students, for faculty and staff, and for parents) that educates people on these issues. This is an area where you can EASILY make a big impact.

(10) Contact your town council, county executive (or freeholder) and state legislator and let them know that you care about these issues. If you are wondering what issues are out there, keep reading my website (and look for extra articles that I link to on the Facebook version of my site) and read the health section of the New York Times each day.

(11) If you really want to engage in direct service work, you need to get your Bachelors and Masters degrees and then get a license. Consider getting a Masters in Social Work (the quickest way to a powerful license) or getting a Masters in Addiction Counseling from Hazelden. You will be a much better candidate for these programs, a better student and a better prospective employee if you followed my advice in point (7). Once you have a Masters level license, you can teach, train workers, take on interns, run programs and cast a much wider influence. It’s a long road, but worth it.

(12) If you need additional help or guidance, feel free to contact me.