By way of my substance abuse blogger colleague, The Discovering Alcoholic, I learned of yesterday’s New York Times article by Sarah Kershaw on Dr. A. Thomas McLellan. McLellan is a psychologist and drug abuse researcher with over 400 peer-reviewed publications to his credit. He held an academic appointment at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and was scientific director of the Treatment Research Institute which he co-founded in 1992 with Jack Durell, MD, and other researchers from Penn’s Center for the Studies of Addiction.
However, McLellan is not a career bureaucrat like many in Washington (“I hate Washington,” he is quoted as saying.). Beyond being a substance abuse researcher, he has experienced firsthand the pain and suffering of addiction:
But the loss of his younger son, who overdosed on anti-anxiety medication and Scotch last year at age 30 while his older son was in residential treatment for alcoholism and cocaine addiction, changed his perspective.
“That’s why I took this job,” said Dr. McLellan, who was sworn in as the deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy in August. “I thought it was some kind of sign, you know. I would never have done it. I loved all the people I’ve worked with, I loved my life. But I thought maybe there’s a way where what I know plus what I feel could make a difference.”
Married to a recovering cocaine addict, Dr. McLellan has been engulfed by addiction in life and work. His own family has been a personal battleground for one of the country’s most complex and entrenched problems, while as an expert he has been a leading voice for the idea that addiction is a chronic illness and not a moral issue. [emphasis mine]
McLellan notes that his experience in substance abuse research and treatment did not make him any better prepared for facing the addiction challenges of his sons:
“If it has to happen, better it happens to me, I’m an expert, right?” Dr. McLellan said. “I didn’t know what to do and none of my buddies knew what to do, and let me tell you they were experts. So I said, ‘What the hell are we doing?’ “
Kershaw’s article speaks in greater depth about the shift in drug abuse policy from one of a “war on drugs” to one of treatment and prevention. Even McLellan’s boss, former Seattle police chief, R. Gil Kerlikowske, has had family members with substance abuse issues.
Many veterans of the long and frustrating fight against addiction say it is about time. “This is an extraordinary moment of opportunity,” said Dr. Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and one of the colleagues and friends who helped persuade Dr. McLellan to take the job.
As you might suspect, treatment and prevention vs. law enforcement and harsh penalties tend to break down between political alliances:
“I’m not sure the federal government has an obligation to try to rehabilitate addicts,” said Heather MacDonald, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative policy research group. “Government has an obligation to provide safe streets to people, and policing has an extremely effective track record in places in like New York City and Los Angeles.”
I have to say that I am still cynical, especially since the Obama administration took the Office down a notch from a cabinet-level position. But I think we at least have leaders at the highest level who understand that the human costs of substance dependence do not warrant a military campaign.
To close on a lighter note, here’s a gem for the scientists who may think of their long ago thesis research as toiling in a vast oasis – McLellan speaks of his own PhD work:
He earned his doctorate in experimental psychology, with a focus on animal learning, from the University of Pennsylvania in 1976.
“You’ve undoubtedly — I think almost every American has read my Ph.D. thesis by now,” he said. ” ‘Negative Autoshaping in the Rat, Cockroach, Pigeon and Crayfish.’ And armed with this kind of knowledge and obvious preparation for the business world, I was shocked to find that there weren’t many jobs available.”
Do yourself a favor and go read this article by Sarah Kershaw. It’s a good example of excellent science writing because she engages you with a fresh look at an age-old issue, addresses the real-world challenges in the face of everyone’s optimism, and gives you a personal insight into Dr. McLellan’s life and personality. Can’t ask for more than that.
I also look forward to any discussion from any of our neuroscience and substance abuse researchers who may know more about McLellan than I.