Before the war on drugs and the “Just Say No” prevention campaign ramped up in the 1980s, a coalition of politicians and public figures were campaigning to destigmatize addiction and treat it as a public-health issue in America.
Their efforts, led by Iowa Sen. Harold Hughes through the late 1960s and 1970s, were stymied as the political tide turned toward criminalization. But a new generation of advocates on the issue is emerging, including familiar faces from Hollywood, Washington and the sports world.
The documentary “The Anonymous People” tells their story and outlines their argument that treating addiction on a large scale requires political will and that political will requires vocal — not anonymous — people who’ve recovered from drug and alcohol dependence.
The nonprofit Valley Partnership for Drug Prevention is bringing the film to the Wheeler Opera House for a free screening tonight in the hopes of sparking a community conversation about Aspen’s perennial problem with alcohol and drugs.
“We often hear that substance abuse is the biggest health issue facing our community, and this is an interesting take on that topic,” said Valley Partnership Director Michael Connolly.
Founded in 1981, Valley Partnership has long-established drug and alcohol programs in local schools. Thursday’s screening, Connolly said, is the beginning of an effort by the nonprofit to offer more programming aimed at adults and the community at large.
In one segment, the film relates a little-known piece of American history, chronicling an organization called Operation Understanding, which brought together elected officials such as Hughes and celebrities in recovery such as actor Dick Van Dyke and astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who advocated for American authorities to treat addiction as a disease. The film outlines how the momentum of Operation Understanding halted with the intense and sustained period of criminalization that began in the Reagan era.
“Just as the recovery-movement pioneers were starting to make a dent in the court of public opinion about those addicted to alcohol, the leaders of the free world were teaching us that drug addicts like me were the biggest threat to America,” director and producer Greg Williams says in the film.
Today, the documentary argues, addiction is an anemically financed public-health crisis, with a $350 billion annual economic impact in the U.S. The problem is made worse, it posits, by a criminal-justice system that locks up addicts and alcoholics rather than treating them and by media organizations that exploit Charlie Sheen-style downward spirals but ignore rehabilitated celebrities. Public perception, “The Anonymous People” argues, still sees addicts as flawed people, not sick ones.
“When diabetics go off their sugar and go into the emergency room, they’re treated with empathy,” says former Denver Nugget Chris Herren, whose career was cut short by drug problems. “An addict walks in, and he’s thrown back onto the road.”
The public’s perception, the movie provocatively argues, is due in part to 12-step programs’ tradition of anonymity, which leaves people largely unaware of the millions of addicts and alcoholics who successfully recover.
“So many people in our society still think of addicts as people who are living under bridges, who are wearing trench coats and clutching paper bags full of whiskey, and that’s just not who we are,” says actress Kristen Johnson, best known for “Third Rock From the Sun” and her addiction memoir, “Guts.”
“The Anonymous People” profiles a few programs that its makers believe could stem the tide of addiction if expanded with government support. Those include high schools for sober teens, which are running in New York and Boston, and jail programs that segregate inmates hoping to get and stay sober.
Williams’ film argues that the recovery community should follow the lead of AIDS activists in the 1980s, who used marches and aggressive public advocacy to reduce the stigma surrounding the disease, a tactic that eventually led to public support and political capital to fund prevention, treatment and research.
“If we’re not politically engaged, then we’re leaving this to someone else,” argues former Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy, who waged a public battle with addiction while he was in office. “And if we could ever tap those 20-some million people in long-term recovery in this country right now to say they’re willing to put their hand up and be a face and voice of recovery, you change this overnight.”