Disgust Or Pity For Crack-Smoking Toronto Mayor?

November 6, 2013

Finally today, not to kick a man when he is already down, but can we take a moment to contemplate yesterday's admission by the mayor of a major North American city that he had in fact used crack cocaine? Citizens of Toronto, welcome to my world. As a longtime resident of Washington, D.C., I have had to endure years of jokes about our former mayor, Marion Barry, now a D.C. council member, who was famously induced to light up in a hotel room by a woman with whom he had been, ahem, involved.

The whole sordid mess was captured by law enforcement on a hidden camera — including what Mr. Barry blurted out when police burst into the room. A phrase that succinctly captured Mr. Barry's unhappiness at having been ensnared by a woman of whom he was no longer as fond as he had been a few moments before. The statement was hot on t-shirts for a while. Remember all that? Because really, how could you forget?

So now it's Mr. Rob Ford's turn to suck in a big heaping helping of scorn and ridicule. Although, unlike Mr. Barry who was mainly belligerent when he got busted, Mr. Ford seems, after some initial denials, extremely contrite. But unlike Mr. Barry, Mr. Ford also has to contend with the fact that crack is not just dangerous, it is also passé: a back-in-the-day kind of thing, like leisure suits and platform shoes.

And he also has to contend with the hypocrisy issue. A conservative, he ran on a platform of fiscal discipline. So his own seeming lack of personal discipline, including a history of comments that many of his colleagues consider offensive — about everybody from Asians, to gays, to people who commute by bicycle — make his transgression all the more noteworthy. Still, he swore he is not an addict: it was a one-time thing and it will never happen again. Well, we'll see about that.

Can I just tell you, my purpose here is not to point up another politician behaving badly - although that's always a good time. It's to remind us all that substance abuse can be anybody's problem: famous people, not famous people, people who look like you, people who don't look like you.

Marion Barry is an unreconstructed black liberal, a onetime civil rights pioneer, an early supporter of gay rights and restoring voter rights to convicted felons, an unabashed fan of government spending. Rob Ford is a white former business executive, a crusader against big city elites, a fiscal conservative. And yet both, for reasons only they can truly know, have risked their careers and the trust and esteem of those they care about, all for a hit of a cooked coca leaf plant cut with sodium bicarbonate.

Addiction is everybody's problem. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimates that in 2008 there were 1.9 million current (past-month) cocaine users in the U.S., of whom more than 300,000 were current crack users. And while that number is down from previous years, millions of Americans are still using meth, prescription pills and that old standby, alcohol, to get themselves high.

As a person who has been profoundly affected by somebody else's addiction, I can certainly understand why many people find the whole "it is a disease not a moral failing" thing very hard to take. But our moral opprobrium, as well as our jokes about the famous people who get caught, aren't fixing the problem.

It's not helping us figure out why some people are susceptible to addiction and others are not. And it's not helping us better figure out what can help people both resist and recover.

Now I personally don't care whether Rob Ford resigns his office or not; that's for his constituents to decide. But I do hope he gets help. And I do hope his recovery will include reminding people that addicts come in all shapes and sizes and colors. And they are all suffering. And we're all paying the price, in one way or another, with them.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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