Addiction and drug overdoses claim one life every four minutes in America. In the time it takes to order a latte, someone dies—from an illness that is highly treatable. The addiction crisis is the result of social prejudice; criminal justice policies that incarcerate people with addiction instead of giving them treatment; health care policies that make it difficult or impossible to get medical help for substance use disorders; ignorance; and “abstinence-only” drug policies that are ineffective and backwards.
The fact is, people who struggle with substance use disorder are treated like second-class citizens. Admitting there’s a problem can mean losing your job, home, and custody of your children. That makes addiction a civil rights issue. And, thanks to the work of advocates across the nation, it’s finally being recognized as a moral issue, as well.
Thought leaders like Tom Steyer are helping to drive this message home. I first met Tom during the Democratic National Convention. I had just shared my experience with addiction and recovery when Tom approached me. I was taken aback by the story he shared. He, too, lost someone very dear to him due to addiction: his best friend, who struggled with addiction for decades. His friend contracted HIV and Hepatitis C through drug use, and died of medical complications due to his illnesses.
A few months later, Tom joined me at the Facing Addiction in America summit in Los Angeles, where we invited him to share his story on stage with the U.S. Surgeon General. As Tom talked, tears filled my eyes. He said, “We must embrace our shared humanity and recognize that addiction is a deadly, chronic illness, not a personal failing.” I'd lost friends, too. I was at risk, too. It was time to bridge the gap between policies and public awareness.
People like Tom Steyer and other pioneering philanthropists, who give tens of millions to progressive causes such as medical research, environmental causes, and water quality, must also step up to end the addiction crisis in America. Our fight is America’s fight. The sooner they do, the quicker we can heal this nation from our generation’s most urgent public health crisis.
Working alongside lobbyists, nonprofit groups, social organizers, and peer recovery groups, they can help fill the gaps left by policies and laws that omit or punish people with substance use disorder. As the current administration takes steps toward a health care bill that will leave people suffering from addiction without medical care, these philanthropic giants are in a unique position to help. Why? Because their involvement would not be tied to political party or personal gain. Rather, they would focus on the solution, plain and simple.
Addiction should be one of the issues on the list of social problems we urgently address, next to finding a cure for cancer and ending childhood hunger. Addiction permeates the social fabric of America. Nobody is exempt. As many people suffer from addiction as diabetes; more people use pain medications than tobacco products. For every person who’s developed full blown substance use disorder, another dozen are on the road to addiction. Substance use disorder affects every corner of society, including our collective health, family unity, the economy, workplace productivity, and our reliance on social programs. It also keeps jails full of people who may struggle to find jobs to support their families once they’re released, and will never be able to vote again.
The recovery advocacy movement has been built slowly, through the efforts of individuals and highly fragmented groups. We have an incredible grassroots movement that addresses an issue that directly impacts one in every three families in America, and indirectly touches all of us. But fundraising for recovery advocacy has been largely through family and friend donations—which, although heartfelt, aren’t sufficient to fund serious research, create desperately needed social infrastructure, or provide education about the true nature of addiction. While organizations dedicated to battling cancer, heart disease, and diabetes raise hundreds of millions of dollars annually, the “addiction field,” such as it is, raises perhaps $25 million from private sources. This is unconscionable.
Gates, Geffen, Buffett, Steyer, and other philanthropic giants have the potential to be visionaries in this space. They could quickly stem the addiction epidemic without waiting for policy makers to hammer out yet another law that places people’s recovery at risk. They could find the solution that keeps families intact. With their help, nobody will lose another friend to this disease or the health problems that come with it. Bob and Suzanne Wright demonstrated the power and possibility of this kind of giving when they funded Autism Speaks. Their philanthropy helped move autism front and center: why not do the same for addiction?
What will our society, our culture, be like when we finally take addiction out of the equation? For many people, and their families, the answer is coming much too slowly.
It’s time to apply our knowledge, build a coalition, and offer the solutions our country so desperately needs. It’s time to change the framework of this crisis and confront our deepest values. Instead of punishment, we need to help the people who are sick—dying from this illness. It’s time to work together and end America’s addiction crisis for good.
What we need now is for America’s philanthropic visionaries to step up to help us dramatically accelerate the pace of progress in this urgent effort. Addiction doesn’t need someone to put their name on a building, or name a research institute. Addiction desperately needs bold philanthropists who want to leverage the people power of the grassroots.