Dr. Robert DuPont, the former drug czar for two Presidents Ford and Nixon, sits down with the editors of RiverMend Health to discuss a variety of addiction related topics and provide his unique perspective on the challenges and history of drug and alcohol treatment.
Can you tell us how you got into this specialty?
Dr. Robert DuPont: I got into addiction through an interest in crime. I went to work in the Department of Corrections, and was very interested in finding ways to help people in prisons because I actually liked the people who were in prisons and wanted to help them, and found that the way to do that best was to deal with addiction, which was a major cause for people going to prison. From that, I’ve had a career of 45 years in addiction treatment.
You have been a Drug Czar, for which Presidents?
Dr. Robert DuPont: I’m the only person who’s been a Drug Czar for two Presidents, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
What were the issues you focused on?
Dr. Robert DuPont: Those were the days when treatment was just new in the country. President Richard Nixon established a federal commitment to treatment, and prevention, and research for the first time in 1971. In 1973 we established the National Institute on Drug Abuse, NIDA, and rolled out a national treatment system for the first time in the country’s history. So this was done through working with the states in partnership, with federal grants to fund treatment. Most of the treatment in this country, particularly government treatment, was from that era. It was the time in the country when the biggest percentage of federal money was spent on treatment of any time since then. Our priority was to make treatment available to more people. In those days, the major problem was heroin. So we were mostly talking about heroin addiction treatment, and methadone was a big part of what we did.
How did NIDA get formed?
Dr. Robert DuPont: The first act was 92255, was the public law passed in 1972, established the National Institute on Drug Abuse as a center for research, and also in those days to treatment and prevention as well. It was authorized in 1972 but began in September of 1973, and it was part of what was then Health, Education, And Welfare, and now the Department of Health and Welfare. It’s a very important part of our government. It’s evolved over the years to focus just on research. So the current NIDA is just a research organization, and the treatment and the prevention has gone to another agency called SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration.
What were your hopes for NIDA?
Dr. Robert DuPont: [laughs] What were my hopes for NIDA? I don’t know. Things were so new then. It was interesting, most of the leaders was very young, as I was at that time, and it was a very exciting time and a lot of very innovative people were in the drug field. It was exciting, the future seemed fairly limitless to me. I now look back on it, it all seems kind of primitive and there were a lot of things that we could have done better, but there was a sense of real excitement and enthusiasm. We were interested in building a knowledge base. For the whole world, NIDA has been the center of research for more than 40 years. It’s kind of exciting to think about the brain research that came as a result of that, and understanding what the nature of the drug problem was. Before that time, people thought that what made a drug addict was withdrawal, that the problem was that when a person stopped they would be sick and so they couldn’t stop. If you think that’s the problem with addiction, then you do detox and you get them off and then they’re free. But in a hundred years of doing that, nobody noticed that as soon as you stopped and turned the person out into the community they went right back to the drugs. So we learned from NIDA’s research that it isn’t withdrawal that makes an addict, it’s relapse that makes an addict. So the goal of treatment is not to get them off the drugs, it’s to help them stay off the drugs. That all has to do with understanding how the brain mechanism works, or what is the biology of addiction.