“It’s very hard to be in a room talking about ‘those people,’” says Greg Williams, referring to people, like Williams himself, who are recovering from an opioid, cocaine, or alcohol addiction. Get people who’ve actually experienced addiction into government policy meetings, he continues, and “it changes everything.”
Williams, 35, has been in recovery from an oxycodone addiction since 2001. An executive vice president at the nonprofit Facing Addiction, Williams leads an initiative there called the Addiction Recovery Leadership Project. (Facing Addiction merged with the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence in January.)
The leadership project aims to place people who have overcome a substance use disorder into government jobs at the city, state, and federal level. Williams draws comparisons to the Victory Fund, a political action committee that has supported local and national LGBTQ candidates since the late 1990s.
The project seeks to help people who are open about being in recovery, consistent with Facing Addiction’s overall policy platform, which prioritizes giving people who have battled addiction the chance to share their stories.
With the November midterm elections less than three months away, Williams is particularly focused on the upcoming gubernatorial elections—there will be 36 of them—since job openings spike after a political turnover.
After the elections, Facing Addiction plans to work with member organizations in states where incumbents have been unseated to identify and prepare potential applicants. Williams ticks off, as examples, government posts relevant to addiction and recovery: housing, mental health, public safety, foster care. But even placing people into less obvious departments, like transportation or revenue services, he adds, can be “strategic and important” if the candidates “are willing to talk about [recovery] publicly.”
Williams’ team is developing webinars for applicants that will feature discussions with people in recovery who already serve in government: individuals like Brett Smiley, chief of staff to Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, who is in recovery from alcoholism, and Tony Sanchez, in recovery from alcohol and cocaine, who directs the Office of Recovery Transformation for the state of Georgia. The webinars will also teach resume writing for government service jobs and how to draft a narrative personal statement.
By narrative statement, Williams has in mind the type of essay that Christopher Jones, Pharm.D., posted on the Health and Human Services website earlier this year. In January, Jones, 38, was named the first director of SAMHSA’s National Mental Health and Substance Use Policy Laboratory.
“I had my wisdom teeth taken out when I was 17,” Jones writes in the essay, “and I was prescribed Tylox, which includes oxycodone. … After the first pill, I remember thinking I want to feel like this all of the time.”
“I’m very grateful that I get to work on issues that I have experience in.”—Christopher Jones, in recovery from oxycodone
Jones sought treatment for oxycodone addiction in 2001, during his first year in pharmacy school, the narrative explains. He later earned a pharmacy doctorate, worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (focusing on bioterrorism and pandemic influenza), and, after a brief stint in the private sector, became a captain in the Commissioned Corps of the US Public Health Service.
In his new position at SAMHSA, Jones tells Opioid Watch, he’s helped launch an online resource center for evidence-based treatment options for opioid use disorder among children and adults. One of his priorities is expanding access to medication-assisted treatment in emergency rooms.
Though he didn’t consciously set out to combat the disease he personally struggled with, he says, “I’m very grateful that I get to work on issues that I have experience in.”
This fall marks Williams’ second concerted effort to launch the Addiction Recovery Leadership Project, after a failed attempt, in early 2017, to place people in the Trump Administration. Williams’ team found 13 Republicans in recovery interested in positions at the Departments of Labor, Justice, and SAMHSA, among others, but so far hasn’t been able to schedule so much as a meeting.
“It was a big stumbling block for us,” Williams admits.
“People in recovery bring hope. When you are in the middle of an opioid epidemic there’s not a lot of hope.”—Tom Coderre, in recovery from alcohol and cocaine
Still, he says he remains optimistic, seeing the success of people like Jones and his friend Tom Coderre, a former senior SAMHSA advisor during the Obama Administration who recently returned to his home state of Rhode Island to direct the state’s Department of Behavioral Health. Coderre is in long-term recovery from addiction to alcohol and cocaine.
In an interview with Opioid Watch, Coderre recalls his proudest achievement in federal office: helping secure a chapter on recovery in the Surgeon General’s first report on substance abuse, Facing Addiction in America. (He is listed as a contributing editor). Now, as a senior advisor to Rhode Island Governor Raimondo, he’s working on a four-pillar plan to combat opioid use disorder. His priorities include expanding access to naloxone and medication-assisted treatment, as well as long-term housing, job support, and counseling.
“[I] bring a certain energy to the conversation,” Coderre says. “Because people in recovery bring hope. When you are in the middle of an opioid epidemic there’s not a lot of hope. People are scrambling. To let [your colleagues] know that people recover, that there are strategies that work, is something they tune into very quickly.”