An Interview with William L. White
William L. White (“Bill”), Emeritus Senior Research Consultant at Chestnut Health Systems, past-chair of the board of Recovery Communities United and a volunteer consultant to Faces and Voices of Recovery, shared with us his insights from the Recovery field.
Mr. White has a Master’s degree in Addiction Studies from Goddard College and has worked full time in the addictions field since 1969 as a streetworker, counselor, clinical director, trainer and researcher. He has authored or co-authored more than 450 articles, monographs, research reports, book chapters and 16 books. Bill’s sustained contributions to the treatment field in the United States have been acknowledged by awards from the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, NAADAC: The Association of Addiction Professionals, the American Society of Addiction Medicine, the American Association for the Treatment of Opioid Dependence and the Native American Wellbriety Movement. His collected papers can be found at www.williamwhitepapers.com.
During the UNGASS process, Bill highly contributed to Recovered Users Network consultations in category of Affected Populations: Recovered Users. His valuable knowledge, experience and researches were incorporated in our Global Consultations Final Report. Since then, he is a full member of our network.
How would you describe your work in the recovery field?
Over the past half-century, my work has spanned scientific studies on addiction recovery, research on the history of addiction recovery in the United States, and a body of work on the New Recovery Advocacy Movement. These roles of research scientist, historian, and policy advocate have not always been easy to combine, but it has been a most fulfilling journey.
What are the most important findings in your work?
I think the most important aspects of my work have been documenting the prevalence, pathways, styles, and stages of addiction
recovery, with a particular emphasis on the growing varieties of recovery experience. What we know about addiction from the
popular and professional literature could fill an entire library, but remarkably little attention has been given to the long-term
processes of personal and family recovery. What I have tried to reveal in my collaborative studies is that recovery is possible
and, in fact, a common outcome of addiction and that the personal solutions to addiction vary widely across individuals and
cultural contexts. I have tried to shift the focus from the pathology of addiction to the patterns of resistance, resilience,
What is your opinion about recovery nowadays and general opinion on the global situation regarding drug (ab)use? Is it easier or harder nowadays for an individual with drug addiction problems to enter recovery services than it was before?
This varies across the globe, but in general, recovery is more accessible today than it has ever been in history. This is due to the growing visibility of recovery produced by recovery advocacy movements, the resulting diminishment of social stigma attached to recovery, and the expansion of treatment and recovery support resources, including new recovery support institutions (e.g., recovery centers, homes, schools, industries, ministries, sports venues, cafes, etc.) I think there is growing realization that we cannot incarcerate our way out of a drug epidemic and that Draconian drug laws do little to prevent or abort addiction at personal, community, or cultural levels.
What is the potential of Recovered Users? Do we consider their voices, or are they muted compared to the voices of researchers and professionals?
Historically, we have two types of knowledge within the alcohol and other drug problems arena: scientific/professional knowledge and experiential knowledge. We are now seeing the legitimization of the latter and, more importantly, the integration of these two ways of knowing. It’s now a question of either/or. It’s how do we combine these ways of understanding to enhance the resolution of alcohol and other drug problems. There are millions of individuals and families in long-term recovery. We are finally recognizing that their collective experience may be able to shed light on the problem of addiction, but even more importantly, on its varied solutions. We used to speak of people in recovery on the one hand and scientists and service professionals on the other. But now we have a growing legion of people in recovery going back to school to become scientists and service professionals. Such integration of experiential and scientific/clinical knowledge holds great promise for the future.
What is the importance of an advocacy movement like RUN, and are those movements essential for visibility of recovery and further development of drug strategies, which are unfortunately unbalanced?
The most important things recovery advocacy organizations and movements do are to create community environments (spaces and landscapes) in which recovery can flourish and then increase the density of visible recovery carriers who make recovery contagious at cultural and local community levels. They do this through the mechanisms of public and professional education, policy advocacy, forging new recovery support services and institutions, and hosting recovery celebration events. Collectively, these activities put thousands of human faces and voices on recovery and challenge the demeaning and pessimistic caricatures that have long pervaded public portrayal of addiction/recovery and fueled stigma and discrimination.
Do you have any advice on how to influence UN, EU or national drug policies?
I don’t think anyone in the United States, including myself, is in a moral or technical position to advise other countries on drug policy given the extensive history of harm in the name of help that pervades American drug policies. We in the U.S. need to make international amends for the harmful effects our drug appetites and drug policies have exerted on other countries. We need to enter into relationship with other countries on this issue from a position of humility—as students rather than teachers.
How do you see the future of drug policies in relation to recovery?
I believe that the concept of recovery can be transformative as an organizing paradigm for drug policy, but I also believe that the concept has been and will continue to be hijacked for ideological and institutional gain. That’s why the definition of recovery and the clear definition of recovery-oriented systems of care are so important in preventing such corruption. In some countries, recovery will be superficially adopted as another “flavor of the month” without substantial change in policy of service practices. In others, it will be hijacked to put a new face on misguided efforts to eliminate medication-assisted treatment and harm reduction services. But in others, it will transform everything it touches—from a policy level to new ecological approaches to shape recovery-friendly local communities. Rather than eliminating, it will dramatically elevate the quality of medication-assisted treatment and other traditionally defined harm reduction services. It will create enhanced capacities to minimize harm to individuals, families, and communities; speed recovery initiation and stabilization; support the transition to recovery maintenance; elevate the quality of personal and family life in long-term recovery; and support efforts to break intergenerational cycles of addiction and related problems. It will meet people where they are but not leave them there. Nothing could be more exciting in the policy arena than those possibilities.