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In Shift, 2 Boston Candidates Are Open About Substance Abuse Battles

BOSTON — Addiction is not something people often talk about openly — especially if they’re running for office. But two Boston political candidates are “coming out” and discussing their battles with substance use.

While some say that openness allows a candidate to create a story that might resonate with voters, others say it could backfire.

Perhaps the most dramatic recovery story on the campaign trail in Boston is from at-large city council candidate Jack Kelly.

“I got hooked on Oxycontin and then heroin and I lived a life of crime for while,” Kelly said. “Up until 22, when I got sober and got my life changed, I had a criminal record. I still have it, and I’m running for political office.”

A candidate not only acknowledging drug use, but addiction, is a dramatic shift from the days when a politician would try to disavow any substance use. One of the most well-known examples may be this 1992 response from former President Bill Clinton: “I experimented with marijuana a time or two, and I didn’t like it and didn’t inhale and never tried it again.”

“[I]f your background is uncovered by a journalist, it becomes a scandal. If you’re out front with it, it becomes a very powerful story of redemption.”
– Tufts' Jeff Berry

According to Tufts University political science professor Jeff Berry, we have come a long way. Drug and alcohol use is not quite as taboo for a politician as it was 20 years ago, Berry said, and with so much information available online, a candidate needs to control the narrative about their background.

“The driving force is that if your background is uncovered by a journalist, it becomes a scandal,” Berry explained. “If you’re out front with it, it becomes a very powerful story of redemption.”

One of those powerful stories is from Boston mayoral candidate Marty Walsh.

“As an adult, at the age of 28, I went into treatment for alcoholism and I’m a recovering alcoholic and I’ve been sober for over 18 years,” Walsh said.

Like many others dealing with a substance use disorder, Walsh has been involved with Alcoholics Anonymous. As the name suggests, participation in such a group is not public. In fact, most AA members actively avoid publicity, politics and any kind of promotion. But part of their recovery work is reaching out to support and protect others in the group. So while there is no real political muscle or mobilizing of the recovery community, there is loyalty.

Treatment consultant Peter Barbuto is one of the leaders in the local recovery community working on Walsh’s campaign.

“The guy has done a lot for a lot of people,” Barbuto said. “Drug addiction and alcoholism has its teeth in every family.”

As for Walsh’s opponent, John Connolly, his family has been touched by addiction. Connolly promised that, if elected, he would create a special office in City Hall to deal with it.

“An office of recovery services would go a long way toward coordinating all efforts around drug addiction and the scourge of drugs in our city,” Connolly said.

However, UMass political scientist Paul Watanabe warned that all the talk about addiction could turn off some voters who might be concerned about the possibility of relapse, or trusting an addict or alcoholic.

“It’s not a slam dunk across the board,” Watanabe cautioned. “For I would guess a great majority of the population, this would not have a major bearing. For some, it may create a positive identification, and for others it may have some negative consequences.”

Addiction researchers estimate that 23 million Americans are now in recovery. According to the state Department of Public Health more than 104,000 people were admitted to substance abuse treatment programs in Massachusetts in fiscal year 2012-2013. More than 15 percent of those admissions were people from Boston.

Former Massachusetts health official Michael Botticelli now works on drug policy for the Obama administration. He welcomed the increased public discussion about addiction and said someday those in recovery may become an influential voting bloc.

“I think when we’ve seen any kind of stigmatized issue, whether it’s HIV or gay rights, it’s really been about people who come out about their own circumstances that fundamentally change what our views of that as a society are and ultimately change public policy,” he said.

According to Botticelli, part of the reason why there is more openness is because there is more acceptance of the research that shows addiction is a disease and not a moral failing.

Botticelli has his own story of recovery. 

“I’m coming up on my 25th anniversary in recovery,” he said. “If you had asked me 25 years ago if I would be the deputy director of the White House on national drug control policy, I would have been very surprised. So it’s an honor. I always say that my story is not unique.”

And now it is no longer a unique story on the campaign trail.

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