There is a scene in the 1939 film, “Wizard of Oz,” in which the tornado drops the house carrying Dorothy and Toto in to (and onto) Oz. As the front door opens, Dorothy observes with amazement that they are no longer in Kansas. At that point, the movie goes to color from black-and-white. Newspaper accounts at the time noted audible gasping at that juncture of the film nationally among theater audiences, many of whom were experiencing Technicolor for the first time and in a way were themselves transported to a new world.
I have had similar moments in my work at NCADD-NJ. At the latest legislative hearings, as well as in reading the speeches of Governor Chris Christie, our message of addiction as an illness requiring a public health response is not only resonating, but we find ourselves on the receiving end of this mantra from many of the same policy-makers who might have reacted with either hostility or indifference not so many years ago.
The reason for the change is apparent. Decades of a fruitless and misguided drug war have only resulted in broken lives and decimated public budgets. Officials and the general public are frustrated and eager to hear of tangible solutions to the problem of substance misuse. When I hear legislators talk openly at public forums of their personal experience with addictions among some of their family members, it tells me that they now get it. Further, they realize that the majority of the electorate is on board as well, and that speaking in a sympathetic and supportive manner with and about addicts is no longer the Third Rail politically it once was.
This has made me reflect on the black-and-white days of our movement. This June 10 will mark the 80th Anniversary of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous. How different a world our pioneers such as Marty Mann and Bill W. lived in on that day, which marks when Dr. Bob had his last drink. Not only have we seen incredible advances in our understanding of the brain and the best approaches to treatment, but the refinement level of the public and their elected leaders has likewise come so far that today’s environment would be unrecognizable to the pathfinders of decades ago.
Now the burden is on us to raise, on behalf of people seeking, and living in, recovery, the level of our “ask.” We must meet the more developed insight about addictions with more sophisticated requests of our policy makers. At a recent N.J. Senate Budget Hearing, a number of legislators complimented the drug treatment participants present for their “courage” in speaking out. This was a sincere and well-intentioned gesture and it is much appreciated. However, that admiring comment was not also extended to the advocates who were there arguing for more funding for diabetes or cancer research. As long as it is generally acknowledged that raising the problem of addiction disorders requires “courage,” then it also serves as a reminder of the stigma that surrounds this sickness that doesn’t adhere to other diseases.
NCADD-NJ, with its Advocacy, Communications and Policy divisions, is well-positioned to carry the effort to the next step. The sympathy and respect for our constituency is genuinely welcomed. However, it won’t prevent that youngster from experimenting with illegal substances, nor open up a treatment slot for someone in distress. The pity and best regards of officials will just be mood music if we fail to take advantage of this new attitude to secure a better life for our brothers and sisters. With approximately 800,000 Garden State residents struggling with this disorder, it is incumbent upon our government to do everything it can to eliminate barriers to good health by fully supporting high-quality prevention, treatment and recovery services for all who need them. And let us dedicate this extra effort to Marty, Bill, Bob and the other homesteaders who helped deliver us here.