Bush Should Do More than Talk About His Own Drug Addiction Problems

05/25/2011 12:25 pm ET
  • Tony Newman Director of Media Relations, Drug Policy Alliance

President Bush last week shared his personal struggles against alcohol addiction with former prisoners in recovery who are enrolled in a program to help them reenter productively into society.

Bush recounted having given up alcohol the day after his 40th birthday, following a "particularly boozy night." He often credits his Christian faith for giving him the strength to stay sober.

Here are five observations on Bush's drug use confessions and his continuing struggle with addiction:

1) Drug misuse doesn't discriminate, but our drug policies do.

George W. Bush, Al Gore III, Rush Limbaugh and Patrick Kennedy all remind us that anyone can be susceptible to drug use problems -- addiction does not discriminate. Unfortunately, our drug policies do. Despite similar rates of drug use, blacks go to jail 13 times the rate of whites. In New York, 91% of the people incarcerated under the draconian Rockefeller drug laws are black or Latino, which is grossly disproportionate to their share of the population or involvement in illegal drug use and sales. Too often, treatment is reserved for the privileged, jail for the poor.

2) "Straight Shooter" Bush Won't Answer Questions about his "Youthful Indiscretions."

President Bush likes to portray himself as a no-nonsense straight shooter. While he may be comfortable talking about his struggles with alcohol, he refuses to address or even acknowledge rumors of past cocaine use. While he asks for privacy for his "youthful indiscretions," our prisons are filled with people who have similarly made mistakes in their youth, wrestled with addiction problems, or have been caught possessing cocaine or other drugs.

3) The Bushes -- and Most Families -- Will Confront Addiction at Some Point

Almost every family in America has had to deal with drug addiction or experience the collateral damage from the drug war. President Bush is not the only Bush to have had serious problems with addiction. His niece Noelle Bush was arrested for trying to fill a fake prescription for Xanax. While in a treatment program, she was busted for crack cocaine. Fortunately for her, she was able to get help without being forced to spend years of her life behind bars. Millions of other people without money or powerful connections are not as lucky. Millions have a loved one behind bars on drug charges. Many millions more have struggled themselves or have a loved one who has dealt with addiction to illegal or legal drugs. By declaring a "war on drugs" we have declared a war on ourselves.

4) There are Many Effective Strategies and Pathways for Dealing with Addiction

Bush was able to give up his drinking "cold turkey" and used his faith to help himself. Millions use abstinence-only programs like Alcoholics Anonymous when trying to give up drugs. Some people give up one addiction like heroin, but may still hold on to smoking marijuana or cigarettes. Many people who quit a drug will relapse one or more times before finding the strength to quit again. There are many pathways and strategies for dealing with an addiction. There is no "one size fits all" approach.

5) Bush Administration Policies Emphasize Prison and Punishment over Compassion and Treatment

One would think that Bush's personal struggles would have him advocate for treatment over jail and punishment. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, only 35% of the federal drug control budget is spent on education, prevention and treatment combined, with the remaining 65% devoted to law enforcement efforts. Our drug policies have led to the United States becoming the world leader in incarceration. We have 5% of the world's population, but 25% of all the world's prisoners, with more than 2.3 million citizens incarcerated in its prisons and jail - more per capita than Russia, Belarus or China.

I appreciate President Bush opening up and sharing his struggles with his drug addiction (yes, alcohol is a drug). It is helpful to remind people that drug addiction is an issue that so many of us have had to deal with. I just wish that his personal experiences would give him the wisdom and courage to advocate for others what he would want for his own family.

Tony Newman is the director of media relations for the Drug Policy Alliance.