WASHINGTON (WUSA9) -- Only on 9, an in-depth conversation with our nation's acting drug czar--the head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Before coming to Washington, Michael Botticelli led the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services in Massachusetts. WUSA9's Andrea McCarren spent the day with Botticelli and shares his very personal story.
"It's actually overwhelming on a daily basis in terms of some of the things I get to do," said an enthusiastic Michael Botticelli, a man so down to earth and unassuming, it's hard to believe he is a Washington insider.
He told us, "If you had asked me 25 years ago, in the depths of that despair, if I at some point would end up as the Acting Drug Czar in the White House, I would have been like 'You're crazy! You're really crazy!'"
Not only does Botticelli play an important role in this Administration, in the world of addiction recovery, he is a rock star.
At a suburban Washington treatment center, he stood at the front of a room filled with addicts, struggling to get clean.
"I'm pretty public about this. I've been in recovery for about 25 years," he said. The crowd burst into applause and Botticelli immediately waved them off. "No, no, no," he insisted, but the applause continued.
"Part of our job now," he explained, "is making sure that we have adequate treatment and that we make sure that we're not throwing people in jail who have a substance abuse disorder."
Touring another residential treatment facility in the D.C. area, Botticelli said, "This is a chronic disease and we need to support people. So I get it on a very, very personal and deep level."
His compassion is clear. Botticelli asks an addict by the name of Raymond, "How long have you been here?"
Raymond replied, "This'll be a week."
"Really? Wow! That's great," Botticelli told him. "You're one of the lucky ones."
Botticelli was addicted to alcohol, raised in a family unhinged by substance abuse. So, he knows early intervention is critical, particularly for people who are at risk. "Of course we don't say to people well, we're going to wait til you have a heart attack before we decide to treat your blood pressure," he said.
With security keeping a watchful eye, we joined Botticelli as he toured local treatment centers, warmly chatting with residents.
"I couldn't see that I would have a happy, fun, love-filled life without drinking. I just didn't think it was possible. And part of that was I didn't see this really vibrant community of people in recovery, of living their lives sober," he said.
Not only is Botticelli the first addict in recovery to hold this position in the White House, he is also the first openly gay man.
"I cannot tell you how freeing it is, to be able to bring your whole self to a job. And not have to compartmentalize different parts of your life," said Botticelli.
"He's the best partner, husband that I could ever ask for and he makes me proud every day," said David Wells, the acting drug czar's partner of 19 years, his husband of five.
"We have this thing every day where he goes off to work and I say okay, go save the world. In his mind, that's really what he's going off to do," said Wells.
Botticelli is also infectiously optimistic that our country has reached a tipping point, making it okay for people to speak openly about their recovery, as he does.
"Just seeing you let me know that the sky's the limit of how far you can make it," gushed one of the treatment center's residents.
"Isn't it wild?" replied Botticelli, beaming at the man.
"For anybody in recovery or anybody who's thinking about getting help, to show that there's this like unbelievably fabulous life on the other side of it. Not to say that it's not life, and there's disappointment, there's hurt, and there's sorrow. But you know what? You do it sober," he said.
A top priority for Botticelli's office is to promote community-based recovery support centers, so addicts in recovery have a place to go and activities to do with other clean and sober people.
Botticelli admits, he is still struggling to give up cigarettes and hopes 2014 is the year he is able to quit, for good.
On the issue of marijuana legalization, Botticelli said he looks at it from a public health perspective. He noted that research indicates marijuana use is particularly harmful for youth, in terms of development and academic achievement. He believes the federal government should continue to do research about its medicinal properties.