Where Politicians Stand on Drug Addiction Depends on Where They Sit

BIO: Stephen Bitsoli is a content writer in Michigan, writing articles about addiction. A journalist for more than 20 years, and a lifelong avid reader, Stephen loves learning and sharing what he’s learned.

There’s an old saying that “where you stand depends on where you sit.” It was coined in 1949 by Rufus E. Miles Jr. – then with the Bureau of the Budget, and later an assistant secretary for presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, among other posts – but in a 1978 article he acknowledged that “the concept is probably as old as Plato.” It’s now known as Miles’s Law.

Though it sounds a little like hypocrisy, that’s not how Miles meant it. He came up with the law in response to a colleague leaving the Bureau for another agency of which he had been very critical. Once there, he became just as critical of the Bureau. Miles’ argument was that to be effective, you have to be a strong advocate for your organization, and that makes you naturally critical of other organizations with a different agenda.

So it’s natural, not hypocritical, that some politicians have become strong advocates for treating addiction to crack or opioids as a disease and arguing for better crack cocaine addiction treatment instead of lifetime incarceration for nonviolent offenders after experiencing addiction themselves or in their families. That doesn’t mean politicians without addicts in the cupboard can’t or shouldn’t change their minds.

Take Newt Gingrich. In 1996, the former Speaker of the House spoke favorably of Singapore’s draconian drug laws (including executing drug smugglers) and sponsored legislation that called for lifetime imprisonment and sometimes death for smuggling as little as two ounces of marijuana. But the same year in his book To Renew America, he wrote that while “We should have no sympathy for addicts” we should have “every sympathy for recovering addicts” and “should work with every recovery program to develop low-cost detoxification programs.” In 2016, Gingrich cofounded Advocates for Opioid Recovery.

What happened between the two positions was what alcoholics call a moment of clarity brought on by reading the twin texts of Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book and Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. The odd thing is, Gingrich says he wasn’t addicted to or abusing alcohol or drugs, but merely had the same symptoms, the same feeling that his life was spiraling out of control. Apparently those feelings gave him sufficient insight or sympathy to soften his position.

Part of not looking soft in the past has been calling for harsh sentences for drug users (not just dealers), and viewing addiction as a moral failing. Gingrich now sees addiction as a disease. Since Gingrich didn’t seek the presidency or other public office for 2016, he had the political freedom to speak freely about the issue.

Those who were campaigning for office, especially Republicans, would risk looking soft on drugs if they called for increased treatment for addicts and sentencing reforms for nonviolent drug offenses. But those who have a personal or familial connection to addiction often see it as a risk worth taking.

Jeb Bush – whose daughter Noelle needed Xanax and crack cocaine addiction treatment – noticeably softened his position on punishment versus treatment. Not that he turned away from punishment and law enforcement, but he also advocated for drug courts and evidence-based treatment with reduced mandatory sentences for nonviolent offenders.

Chris Christie, who had a friend die due to Percocet addiction, also sounded a more conciliatory tone, noting that his mother, too, was an addict, but her drug was nicotine. According to Christie, she died of lung cancer, but no one said, “She’s getting what she deserved. … Somehow, if it’s heroin or cocaine or alcohol, we say, ‘They decided it. They’re getting what they deserved.’ ”

Other political figures, like Donald J. Trump – whose brother died as a result of his alcoholism – John Kasich, Ted Cruz, and Ben Carson – none of whom claim an addict among their close acquaintances – seem more concerned with stopping drugs coming across the Mexican border than in treatment.

But neither Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders have spoken of addict friends or family, either, but advocate for more and better addiction rehab. Maybe as liberal Democrats, they have safer seats and so can afford to take a stand.

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