Former Obama Official Offers His View of Recovery

In an appearance in New Zealand, President Obama’s former deputy drug “czar” Tom McLellan made some interesting points about “recovering” addicts. He was quoted at as commenting on the myth that nobody fully recovers from addiction:

“The fact is about half the people who get treatment for serious addiction relapse in the first year. That’s actually the same relapse rate as for other chronic illnesses such as diabetes, asthma or hypertension, and the factors predicting relapse are usually the same – poverty, lack of social support and co-existing mental illness.

He went on to say:

“In the US alone there are 20 million former addicts who have been stably in recovery for at least five years. Most of us are just unaware of them because you can no longer tell them apart from anyone else, and very few of those who become and remain sober like to brag about it.”

But Professor McLelllan said there is also a lot of confusion about just what recovery is, and that it is not simply about people “trying to get sober”.

“The consensus definition now used for recovery in the US, Britain and France is ‘a voluntary lifestyle characterised by sobriety, good personal health and citizenship’.

“By this definition, sobriety alone is not enough to qualify. The citizenship aspect also means acting in a responsible manner towards those around you. It is widely agreed those who simply stop drinking or using but do not change their attitudes and behaviours are not likely to remain abstinent for long.”

He said this view does have implications for whether a sober person can be said to be in recovery while continuing to smoke cigarettes.

“Logically we’d have to say no. Why would a definition of recovery emphasising abstinence from drugs of abuse and good personal health allow individuals to use nicotine, the most abused drug in the world?”

Of course, this is just one viewpoint, however provocative.


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LifeRing Secular Recovery is an organization of people who share practical experiences and sobriety support. There are as many ways to live free of drugs and alcohol as there are stories of successful sober people.

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