WASHINGTON – President Obama's nominee to serve as U.S. drug "czar" won unanimous approval in the Senate Monday as lawmakers vowed to curb an epidemic that results in more than 40,000 deaths a year from overdoses of prescription painkillers, heroin and other substances.
Senators voted 92-0 to approve Michael Botticelli, who has served as acting drug czar since March. A former head of the Massachusetts Bureau of Substance Abuse Services, Botticelli has emphasized prevention and treatment and has been in recovery for more than 25 years.
Botticelli, 57, of Malden, Mass., helped launch a program that expanded treatment and recovery opportunities at local community health centers and has also focused on prevention. He has spoken publicly about his struggle with alcohol abuse and 1988 arrest for drunken driving, which resulted in his being handcuffed to a hospital bed.
"There are millions of Americans - including myself - who are in successful long-term recovery," Botticelli said in a statement after the Senate vote. "Our stories can fundamentally change the way our nation views people with a substance use disorder, which is a disease needing medical treatment like any other disease."
Botticelli, who was deputy director of the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy before being named acting director, pledged to continue a "science-based drug policy" that emphasizes treatment over arrest. Federal funding for prevention, treatment and recovery is at its highest level in more than 12 years.
"There's a large acknowledgement that we can't arrest and incarcerate our way out of the problem," Botticelli told The Associated Press last year.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called drug abuse a serious problem in his home state of Kentucky and said he looks forward to working with Botticelli. About 1,000 Kentucky residents die each year by overdosing on drugs — a higher total than the number of traffic fatalities in the state, McConnell said.
McConnell said he was pleased that Botticelli has said that, if confirmed, he will visit eastern and northern Kentucky in the next few months to "help ensure a continued federal focus on Kentucky's drug problem."
Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., also lamented a nationwide "scourge of prescription drug and heroin addiction that is breaking apart families and burying communities under a mountain of despair."
Markey called Botticelli a pioneer in public health and drug policy and noted that in nearly two decades at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Botticelli was responsible for numerous programs to expand treatment, recovery and prevention efforts.
"Mr. Botticelli's personal life experiences have provided him a unique perspective on the epidemic facing our nation," Markey said, adding that Botticelli often reminds officials that "there is a family, a loved one, a friend or a child behind each statistic" on drug abuse.
Botticelli said last week that the federal government should not interfere with the District of Columbia's move to legalize possession of marijuana for recreational use. While he doesn't agree with legalization, Botticelli said he believes the District "should stick to its home rule."
District voters approved legalization last November by a 2-to-1 margin. A spending bill passed by Congress in December includes language intended to block legalization.