Michael Botticelli found his passion for the field of substance abuse treatment by the most direct means imaginable: by being treated for addiction himself.
Botticelli was working as a college administrator when he was charged with driving under the influence nearly 30 years ago. His arrest prompted him to enter treatment. It also forced a reckoning that led to major changes in both his private and professional lives. He became an acclaimed expert in substance abuse treatment, a reputation gained in part through his work at the state’s Department of Public Health.
Now, after a stint in Washington as President Barack Obama’s drug czar, Botticelli is returning to Boston. He was recently named to head the new Grayken Center for Addiction Medicine at Boston Medical Center.
“I think that my journey into this work is not atypical,” Botticelli said Tuesday. “As a result of my own recovery, I was presented an opportunity to do work in this field. That’s a trajectory many people share. They feel an obligation to help other people who are still struggling.”
The Grayken Center is being established by a $25 million gift from billionaire investor John Grayken and his wife, Eilene. They want to destigmatize drug addiction, in addition to supporting research into its causes and treatment.
The search for someone to lead the program wasn’t lengthy. Botticelli resigned from his White House post during the presidential transition, and he was a widely respected figure with close ties to Boston Medical Center. The job was his if he wanted it, and he did.
“If you’re doing work around health care and health care policy, Boston is the place to be,” he said. “It’s where all the action is. I’m really thrilled.”
There has probably never been a greater need for addiction treatment than there is now. The opioid crisis has touched millions of families, and just about every community, in America.
The gift to Boston Medical Center, which was announced earlier this month, has several goals. One is to promote deeper research into the science. Another is to advance treatment for the many people who need it. And a third, perhaps more ambiguous, goal is to reduce the stigma of needing treatment.
One issue Botticelli said he plans to focus on is helping people with addictions get treatment sooner, before their conditions spiral out of control.
“We are not doing a good enough job identifying people who are at risk, and intervening at an earlier stage,” Botticelli said. “We do this with diseases all the time. We need to get people the help they need before they overdose and before they intersect with the criminal justice system.”
BMC is a hospital that has long considered drug treatment central to its mission. The hospital’s researchers have helped to created groundbreaking treatment programs, both in the hospital and in the state’s web of community health centers — an effort Botticelli played a key role in during his time as a state official.
The hospital is also located at the heart of what has become “Methadone Mile,” a gathering place for people struggling with addiction and other issues. Botticelli will be able to see the havoc wreaked by drug addiction from his office window. The nickname comes from the methadone treatment centers that operate on and around that stretch of Massachusetts Avenue.
Botticelli is already thinking about it.
“We need to engage the community and engage the city, in ensuring that the programs that we run are good neighbors,” he said. “We’re committed to running high-quality programs, but we’re also committed to being good neighbors.”
Botticelli said he hadn’t necessarily expected to return to Boston when he left federal government. But the opportunity was almost serendipitous.
“I feel that this is my life’s work,” he said. “I wanted to find something that was going to continue to make a contribution and have an impact on people’s lives.”Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.
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