May 8th, 2009
11:54 PM ET

From a Crack House to Redemption

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/05/08/art.cocaine.jpg caption="An addict prepares cocaine paste to smoke."]

Dave Schechter
CNN Senior National Editor

Cope Moyers should be dead.

The fact that he’s alive makes me pay attention when he talks about America’s “war on drugs.”

You can hear a pin drop in the room when Moyers tells his story. (Read about it in “Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption.” ) In short, he is recovering (there is no “cure”) from addictions to alcohol and crack cocaine.

Moyers worked at a couple of major newspapers before coming to CNN in the early 1990s. His first name is William, but here he was “Cope,” not playing on the celebrity of his father, Bill Moyers, who was White House press secretary under President Lyndon Baines Johnson and is now a well-known author and commentator. We got on well, often talking about our families.

Moyers worked hard to maintain the appearance of being a good employee, husband and father. His colleagues – myself included – were unaware of his descent into a form of hell.

“From the outside, I still looked like a healthy, balanced, ethical young man. On the inside, however, I was raging against everything and everyone, especially myself. I didn’t understand what was happening to me and because no one else could see it or name it for what it was, I was left alone with my tormented self. All my energy became focused on one goal – to keep the inside from showing on the outside, to hide the truth of my misery and my shame from others and even from myself,” Moyers wrote in “Broken.”

At his worst, Moyers lay down on the floor of a crack house in Atlanta, a short drive from work, and wished to die. He already had been through rehab three times and still could not shake his addiction to crack cocaine.

About that day nearly 15 years ago, Moyers wrote, “I folded my arms over my chest, longing for comfort, for peace. I was so sick. So sick and tired of it all. In that moment I realized the hopelessness of my situation, and in a sudden, brief flash of clarity, I asked myself: Now what? I stared at the filthy wood floor littered with half-empty beer cans, cigarette butts, and used syringes. The answer wasn't here in this room anymore. It was all over. I was done.”

Rescue came when an intervention team hired by his parents removed him from the crack house and put him into a van, where the son found himself face-to-face with his father, despairing of his eldest’s addiction.

A fourth stint in rehab took hold. Moyers today is a vice president at Hazelden, the well-known addiction treatment center in Minnesota. He travels frequently, talking about the reality of addiction.

According to federal statistics gathered in 2007, an estimated 19.9 million Americans aged 12 or older reported using illicit drugs within the month prior to the survey.

Americans are, their government says, the world’s largest consumers of cocaine (shipped from Colombia via Mexico and the Caribbean), Colombian heroin and Mexican heroin and marijuana. Americans also are classified as major consumers of imported ecstasy and Mexican methamphetamines and minor consumers of Southeast Asian heroin. Of course, not everything is imported. Americans also produce domestic marijuana, depressants, stimulants, hallucinogens and methamphetamine.

More than $40 billion in federal, state and local dollars are spent annually, in what sometimes appears to be a futile effort to keep supply from meeting demand. Even with progress among young people touted by the feds arrests in the U.S. this year are expected to exceed 1.8 million.

(Note: the phrase “war on drugs,” was introduced by President Richard Nixon in June of 1971, a play on the “war on poverty” waged by his predecessor, President Lyndon Baines Johnson.)

A group of former Latin American presidents has called on President Obama to rethink America’s strategy, which they say contributes to the crime, corruption and instability in their region. (Their criticism appeared in a report from the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy.) The leaders wrote in The Wall Street Journal that: “In order to drastically reduce the harm caused by narcotics, the long-term solution is to reduce demand for drugs in the main consumer countries. To move in this direction, it is essential to differentiate among illicit substances according to the harm they inflict on people’s health, and the harm drugs cause to the social fabric. In this spirit, we propose a paradigm shift in drug policies based on three guiding principles: Reduce the harm caused by drugs, decrease drug consumption through education, and aggressively combat organized crime. To translate this new paradigm into action we must start by changing the status of addicts from drug buyers in the illegal market to patients cared for by the public health system.”

Moyers agrees that a different approach is needed.

“The issue is fundamentally about demand,” he tells me. “For too long America's "war on drugs" has targeted the production and distribution of illegal drugs. So we keep doing the same thing over and over: spraying cocoa fields in Columbia, setting fire to poppy supplies in Afghanistan, chopping down marijuana crops in Arizona, raiding crack houses in Atlanta and busting up meth labs in Idaho. And what do we get? Nothing has changed. Nothing. Just look at the street fights between drug cartels in Mexico or the Taliban's resurgence through the production of opium. The same crack houses are up and running [in Atlanta] where I hung out 15 years ago. Cocaine is half the price it was in 1980. Doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result, is called insanity and insanity is what this drug war is all about. The most effective way to reduce the production and flow of drugs into America is to reduce the consumers' demand for them, and the most effective way to reduce that demand is by getting people like me to stop using them.”

(Note: Whether the price of cocaine has risen or fallen seems to depend on the time frame you use.)

Don’t misunderstand, Moyers is not opposed to attacking the supply side.

“There is nothing wrong with seizing illegal drugs and locking up drug dealers, so the money spent on the war on drugs is not completely wasted. But it is money poured into a bottomless pit as long as more resources are not committed to prevention, treatment and research. About two-thirds of the federal drug budget goes to intervention and tough law enforcement. We need to shift that to 50-50,” he says.

Moyers is hopeful that the Obama administration will change the current approach.

“There are signs President Obama understands that the war on drugs is tantamount to a war against people who are users and abusers, most of whom are addicted and need help instead of just punishment. So while the jury is still out, I am hopeful. If I had five minutes with Mr. Obama I would say this: "Take a chance and do what no other president has done in the past 40 years: shift from a primary focus on the supply and instead use those additional resources on effective, evidence-based prevention and treatment models. Issue a public challenge to addiction treatment providers to develop a standardized benchmark for measuring the success of treatment among various populations. One benchmark for indigent addicts and alcoholics in the public pay system and one for people with private health care insurance. And in the meantime, hold a White House summit on addiction in America, with a focus on the solutions, not the problems,” he says.

As for life as a recovering addict, a husband and father, Moyers takes it “one day at a time.”

Filed under: David Schechter
soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Terry, TX

    Great story of recovery. However, the availability is real and abundant... users who don't want help or have not hit rock bottom ....continue to use...we don't need another White House Summit to recommend taxpayers money to be slapped at this issue. I agree education...might I add more drug testing by businesses and government positions. Most companies give everybody one shot...then therapy rehab....you do it again your fired. People have to take responsibilities for their choices... communities need to clean up their neighborhoods, loose the "no snitch" attitude, and quit admiring the celebrities who use and abuse... There is no government magic pill that will fix this...families and communities need to stand up and do something....

    May 11, 2009 at 10:00 am |
  2. Rose from Muscoy, Calif

    As long as theres crack-cocaine, methamphetamines, ecstasy heroine, LSD ect. There will be Consumers who need and use these drugs. No matter the religion, wealth, the poor, man or woman or child. People and countries that import these drugs will kill anyone who gets in their way. It's big bucks they're talking about here!
    The F.B.I and other drug enforcement have a big problem in their hands
    We need to really EDUCATE and HELP these people with addictions. Their families sometimes can't efford the REBAB!
    So, what can a addict do? And now some of these drugs are being made cheap! Not good.
    So, I think prevention is the key here by keeping up with our kids we as parents need to have a open commucation. Be involve in their lives even if they don't want us too. They need to know that we love them and tough love is a kind love that every child needs, especially these days when everything is cold in the internet. Children needs a warm hug and a heart-to-heart talk once in awhile. And saying I LOVE YOU, isn't bad either.

    May 11, 2009 at 12:46 am |
  3. earle,florida

    Excellent article,with a great deal of solutions regarding timely questions,and answers,but with a few caveats? The human's body is a chemical factory,ironically capable of producing drugs more powerful than morphine,or even hallucinogens at the same level as LSD,when various modes of crises/euphoria occur in our life. I've seen acquaintances (heroine) shoot-up,and go to work every day never being effected by the drug,and that goes for pot. The readily supply of drugs in big cities makes this posible without the worry of not being able to support/enable their habit. But, drugs I identify as the worst of the worst, such as crack-cocaine,methamphetamines,ecstasy and cocaine have an adverse/destructive effect quite visibly once addicted. Their are a litany of reasons/excuses why we choose illicit drugs,poor self-esteem (no-brainer),peer pressure (to be eccepted at any cost),or simply a self-destruction mode,brought on by (feeling of worthlessness) a horrific family/home life. The roots,and causes are many for all of us,but once the abuser first acknowledges he has a problem, the battle is half solved,with the aforementioned prevention/treatment interventions Mr Moyers suggest. Bill's, father ,and family came to terms about their sons addiction and openly talked publicly about the curse addiction brings to all loved ones,but not all addicts are blessed,and fortunate with such families. PS.My hats off to you "David" for your relentless journalism to bring about issues of such importance,...

    May 9, 2009 at 1:37 pm |
  4. Tammy, LA

    Addiction is a daily war all of us blessed with the disease fight. It is a multi-faceted personal struggle that does have a cookie cutter answer for treatment (meds v. 12-step v. God v. therapy v. a combination v. nothing). We all battle our own demons. We all have our own answers that work for us. This is what makes it all that much harder to beat. I am grateful someone finally spoke the truth, though, about it. Maybe one day enough people will listen to those of us in the trenches for our own lives and act on that instead of the nonsense that currently drives policy and procedure in prevention and treatment circles.

    May 9, 2009 at 10:24 am |
  5. Ali

    Great article. People need to hear these stories. We need education, prevention and treatment!

    Thank you for sharing your story and for the work you are doing. I support your view.


    May 9, 2009 at 12:39 am |
  6. Barbara in Boston

    Thank you SO much for posting this article. All during the coverage of the Mexican drug wars, I tried to post on the AC360 blog that we needed to start providing treatment if we really want to address the issue. My posts seldom got past the moderators.

    I am a recovering alcoholic with more than 20 years of sobriety. I now work in mental health and addiction. The biggest barrier to treatment is lack of insurance coverage. The second is not enough treatment facilities. This means that a lot of people who want to stop can't get help. Both of these obstacles need to be removed before we can make progress in helping addicts recover.

    If we only look at supply without helping address the demand, we will never stop the devastating toll substances wreak on our society.

    May 8, 2009 at 7:14 pm |
  7. Annie Kate

    What a long difficult road Moyers has traveled. I'm glad he is no longer an addict and is using his experience to help others. He was lucky too to have such supportive and caring parents who stepped in and helped pull him back from what was most certainly a journey towards his own death. If he helps just one person it will be worth it for him – I think though in the end he will help many more than 1 person. Good luck to him.

    May 8, 2009 at 6:54 pm |