Declaring America's "war on drugs" a failure, retired U.S. Sen Harold Hughes exhorted recovering addicts and alcoholics yesterday to fight brazenly for more treatment programs and health coverage.
To do that, he said, recovering addicts need to move beyond their tradition of anonymity into political activity.
Mr. Hughes, a one-time Iowa truck driver who was jailed several times for drunkenness before beginning 39 years of sobriety, visited Baltimore yesterday to launch what he hopes will be a national movement of political activism by a group accustomed to secrecy.
"As I see it, we have been too polite and restrained about the subject," said Mr. Hughes, a three-term governor who represented Iowa in the U.S. Senate from 1969 and 1975. "It is time we got angry and blunt. Addiction is a dirty, vicious illness. It kills not only the body -- it breaks up your families and robs you of your children."
Mr. Hughes, 71, was addressing the first regional conference of the Society of Americans for Recovery (SOAR), a national organization of recovering addicts and advocates that he founded in 1990. Similar gatherings are planned for St. Louis, Atlanta and Los Angeles.
Leaders said addicts should take advantage of the window opened by the national debate over health care reform to demand full health coverage for addicts trying to kick their habits.
The organization, which claims 11,000 members across the country, represents a significant shift from the strict anonymity and aversion to political activism fostered by such "12-step" programs as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.
Mr. Hughes and others who gathered at the Baltimore Convention Center said people have misinterpreted AA's principles of secrecy to mean that they should never identify themselves as alcoholics or take public positions.
Instead, SOAR urges people to get involved politically -- openly discussing their alcoholism without revealing their participation in Alcoholics Anonymous or related programs. This, SOAR members say, preserves 12-step programs as safe havens for people who fear job discrimination while giving addicts the power to fight for their rights.
"There's so much distortion about the disease we suffer from," said Cath Delaney, the organization's field director. "People in AA come together in church basements. They don't want to lose their jobs, their families. We need to come out and say, 'I am in recovery. I do service. I help other people.' "
But she acknowledged that the task of drawing addicts into the open is a difficult one. She said she expected to draw 100 to 150 people to Baltimore -- but only 50 showed up. Most came from Maryland and surrounding states, although some came from New York, Rhode Island and Ohio.
Despite many empty chairs, speaker after speaker struck an enthusiastic tone. Some conceded they wanted to make people feel guilty about not doing enough.
"Don't you care enough about alcoholics and addicts to get political?" asked Deborah Beck, who runs a treatment program in Harrisburg, Pa. "Maybe we don't care enough." she said. "Maybe we don't think an untreated alcoholic or addict is worth it."
At a time when many programs have closed because of a lack of money, she said, the surviving ones have been forced to decide who to accept and who to turn away. She spoke of turning an addict away one day, and reading about the person's skid-row death the next.
Robert White, who runs the employee assistance plan for the University of Maryland Medical Center, called on each member of SOAR to adopt a state legislator -- lobbying the politician repeatedly for favorable legislation.
"We're like the dogs under the table, waiting for the crumbs to drop," Mr. Hughes said. "Our goal is to take control of addictive diseases in America. It's time to take the offense."