In unexpected moment, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack reveals a life torn by addiction

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack

Taking the wraps off a pair of new federal efforts to address addiction in rural America, Tom Vilsack did the expected thing, the sorta-surprising thing and the totally knock them right out of their socks thing.

Left sockless was a group of more than 1,000 people attending the  2016 Summit on RX Drug Abuse and Heroin in Atlanta.  Vilsack, head of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, was among the opening speakers at the Summit Monday. Tuesday afternoon, his boss – that would be the President- will show up for what is described as a Town Hall meeting.

But Monday night, it was Vilsack’s turn.

After announcing that his agency would be giving out $1.4 million in grant money to assist in researching opiate addiction in rural America, and that he would take part in a series of town halls in states hard-hit by the drug crisis, Vilsack explained the origins of his concern.

“I started life in an orphanage in Pennsylvania” before being adopted, he said. It was a loving home, but there was a problem tearing it apart: “My mom had a prescription drug addiction and she was violent. She was mean. She tried to commit suicide a couple of times.

“It was  a tough situation. My parents split up for a period of time. I nearly flunked out of high school.”

He said he judged her harshly, something he now regrets.

“I thought all she had to do was stop taking medications. I did not realize that at that point in time, we were dealing with a disease.”

But, Vilsack said, “on December 25, 1963, she realized she hit bottom.”

His mother got sober, said Vilsack. “She could not have done that without a 30-day treatment program. She could not have done it without a supportive community.”

With an estimated 78 Americans a day dying from prescription opioids, Vilsack said, entire communities now need to  step up: Pastors and community leaders as well as doctors and government.

“Person by person, we can do this,” he said. “We must do this.”





Four million vs. 24 million: How many addicts are there in the U.S.?

Credit writer Dan Baum points for timing. But math? Maybe not.

Baum authored a recent Harpers magazine article suggesting that legalizing drugs might be the answer to the current fix we are in.

Harpers' controversial piece on legalizing drugs- all drugs.
Harpers’ controversial piece on legalizing drugs- all drugs.

His Sunday  interview on NPR about the legalization idea out there just hours before an estimated 1800 gather in Atlanta for the National Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit. Among the attendees: President Obama, as well as the head of the DEA, the Surgeon General, the head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and various and sundry congresspeople.

Monday morning, a Daily Beast columnist weighed in on ending the war on drugs, citing Baum’s article and pointing out that Obama’s talk will take place in a city ravaged by drugs.

Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office on Drug Control Policy, is among high-level fed officials at Summit.
Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office on Drug Control Policy, is among high-level fed officials at Summit.

But while the timing is good, a crucial piece of math used in Baum’s interview is probably not only off base but out of the ballpark entirely.

He suggested about 4 million Americans have a drug dependency problem, citing Peter Reuter of the University of Maryland, who Baum said puts the number of people addicted to hard drugs at fewer than 4 million.

What is being defined as a “hard” drug isn’t entirely clear.

But the feds, based on years of national surveys and emergency room data, estimate more than 24 million people are in need of treatment for addiction.

Even if you’re skeptical of figures provided by the federal government’s drug-fighting agencies, consider this: There are an estimated 600,000 or so heroin addicts in the U.S.  Given its lethal dangers, heroin has all the headlines right now, but it is far from the most common drug of abuse.

Think oxycodone, benzodiazepines, Percocet; throw in methamphetamine, and cocaine. For starters.

If even those five drugs generated the same level of addiction as heroin, once you add in the heroin figures you start bumping up against four million number.

Palm Beach Post Reporters Christine Stapleton and Pat Beall  are covering the four-day Summit live from Atlanta.  The two are members of a Post team of reporters investigating scams in Palm Beach County’s $1 billion drug treatment industry.

The 8-month long investigation by the Palm Beach Post uncovered patient brokering, insurance fraud and kickbacks.