Boston Mayor Walsh is a lousy anti-addiction spokesperson
Earlier this week at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh invoked his personal struggle with substance abuse in the opening line of his prime time speech, “My name is Marty Walsh, and I’m an alcoholic.” In doing so, Walsh was making a statement about second chances, as well as taking a big step towards shattering the stigma of addiction as the opiate crisis rages in our country. They were powerful words from a prominent politician.
As a Bostonian and an alcoholic and drug addict in recovery myself, there was something incredible about watching a local official embrace his own addiction on such a public stage. It was like he was telling all of us that we have nothing to be ashamed of, that we can be and do anything. And there, standing on one of the largest platforms in politics, he seemed to be living proof of what is possible when one overcomes alcoholism.
It was no surprise to see Walsh standing at the DNC to endorse his party’s nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He appeared with her last fall when Clinton was in Boston to attend a forum on substance abuse, where the presidential candidate applauded Walsh’s local efforts to address the issue. The mayor was also named to head a national task force on substance abuse last fall, making him a leading public figure in the field. Walsh’s personal experience with alcoholism makes him an obvious choice to front the charge; consider the activist adage, “nothing about us without us.” Experience can uniquely qualify someone to tackle such issues, as people in recovery are more likely to seriously listen when the person helping has suffered themselves.
Walsh positions himself as the champion for the every man, a working class hero. We heard that in his DNC speech: “I followed my father into the building trades when I was 18 … Labor gave my immigrant family a chance … The labor community got me the help I needed.” He’s a hometown boy, born and raised in Dorchester, who started with very little and overcame cancer and alcoholism and became mayor. It’s a narrative compelling enough to make many residents believe that he has their best interests at heart.
That story played well for the prime time audience. But for those of us who know that Walsh campaigned on the promise that his experience in recovery would spur him to make addiction services a priority, sometimes such claims are hard to believe. There have been positive developments—Walsh created the Mayor’s Office of Recovery Services, the city’s first-ever municipal arm to focus on these issues, and he has also helped save many lives by getting first responders Narcan, the opiate blocker that can instantly reverse an overdose. But there have also been developments that raise the question of whether he is the best person to be preaching about drug and alcohol treatment on national television.
Less than a year after taking office, Walsh abruptly closed the bridge to Long Island, where more than 100 of the city’s treatment beds were located (including nearly two-thirds of the available beds for women in Boston). Long Island was also home to several hundred homeless beds, a detox, and multiple halfway houses. Almost two years later, many of those beds have yet to be replaced while, as was recently illustrated in detail by a Boston Globe investigation, access to treatment in the city is dangerously inadequate. Walsh also supported Republican Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s opiate bill, which included no money for new treatment beds, even though they’re desperately needed. The champion for the “every man” has seemingly forgotten those at the bottom .
Perhaps just as damagingly, Walsh recites outdated, fear-mongering “science” claiming marijuana is “a gateway drug” and merely one step away from opiates, and says he’s doing everything he can to stop cannabis legalization. The mayor even prioritized his own mythology over the statistical reality of biased policing: “So because of racial disparities we legalize a drug that potentially could kill people, lead to death?” His misguided, and, frankly, racist response continued, “I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to do it.”
This would all be bad enough if only Boston was affected by Walsh’s archaic views on addiction, and by his willingness to overlook the people who need the most thelp, all while pleasing donors and developers. But Walsh’s role as the head of a powerful national substance abuse task force, plus his appearance at the DNC to champion his friend Clinton has thrust him into the national spotlight as an expert and leader in the field. And that is a scary proposition for Americans who desperately need help.
Walsh should stop using his alcoholism as a selling point to garner votes and sympathy, and start using it to guide the way he addresses the addiction crisis that our city—and country—is currently facing. His name is Marty and he is an alcoholic. It’s time he refer to his Big Book, and specifically the 12th Step, which charges us to act compassionate and help those who are suffering “in all our affairs.” Because I know his recovery principles taught him better than this.