21 February 2003
Colombian Vice President Tours U.S. Drug Rehabilitation Center
(Santos says program offers "ray of hope" for Colombia) (1670)
By Judy Aita
Washington File Staff Writer
Brooklyn, New York -- Officials representing two countries at the
forefront of the war on drugs (Colombia, which produces most of the
world's cocaine, and the United States, which is a leading consumer)
met face-to-face in a converted Brooklyn waterfront warehouse
recently, in an effort to better understand the harrowing nature of
Vice President Francisco Santos of Colombia undertook his first tour
of a drug treatment center on February 13, meeting with drug addicts
and the people who are helping them find their way to a drug-free
life. Santos was shown how Phoenix House, one of the major U.S.
drug-abuse treatment organizations, runs a residential and vocational
center; afterwards, he talked with the residents.
The residents heard from someone who is on the front line in the fight
to stem the supply of the drugs that have ruined their lives. Several
of the residents fought back tears as they listened to Santos and his
U.S. colleague, Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP)
Director John Walters, describe the violence and terror Colombians are
facing as they try to stop the production and trafficking of cocaine
"This might be my first visit to a treatment center, but I promise you
that it won't be the last -- [and] that I will become a lot more
involved in looking into the demand side," Santos told the Phoenix
"The whole problem of drugs is a cycle," the vice president said. "It
is a cycle ... which we Colombians only see one part of. We only see
what happens to us -- the car bombs, the devilish cycle that has an
effect in Colombia that kills thousands of people."
But "today I got the other perspective," he said. "Drug trafficking --
drugs --not only destroys lives in Colombia, not only kills kids,
innocent human beings, but ... also kills consumers: sometimes it
kills their spirit, sometimes it kills their future, and a lot of time
kills them literally."
Santos said that talking with recovering addicts "not only opens my
mind," but has encouraged him "to look into the demand side a lot
harder," as well.
He acknowledged that Colombia, too, has a demand problem -- and he
suggested that if the Colombian government really hopes to curb the
illegal drug trade, it has to learn more about the demand side, "and
maybe we have to recognize in Colombia that we're not looking as much
into that as we should."
Nevertheless, he said, the visit to Phoenix House has given him "a ray
of hope" that Colombia and the United States, working together with
increased assets and unequivocal dedication, will produce positive
The United States "certainly has [met] its share of co-responsibility
in helping Colombia, putting money into programs in Colombia, in
helping us to defeat drugs in Colombia," Santos said. "But to have a
serious policy, I think we Colombians should have [been] and should
become more involved in looking at what the U.S. is doing in reducing
demand, in helping kids and young men and young women."
Dr. Mitchell Rosenthal, president of Phoenix House, said that this
particular program was launched 10 years ago when the organization
decided to turn its warehouse at 50 Jay Street, Brooklyn, into a
residential center and training facility. From 1968 through the early
1990s, the warehouse was used to handle donated materials -- food,
clothing, and other supplies -- that would then be distributed to
other Phoenix House sites in the New York metropolitan area.
Then with private donations and the help of New York City and New York
State, and with the involvement of people in the treatment program,
Phoenix House turned the warehouse into a bright, airy, modern, clean
facility that also makes good use of the building's architectural
"Whether it is the floor tiles that were donated to us or the lights,
[or] plaster on the walls, it was put up by our own residents. This
was an act of Phoenix House. This was an act of strength of Phoenix
House -- of people committing themselves to building this wonderful
building and leaving this building as a legacy to the residents who
have been coming here for the last five years," said Rosenthal.
Adjoining the residential section "is a sophisticated vocational
school that offers courses in food service, building maintenance,
computer science, and other programs that allow residents in the
treatment centers to get the kind of vocational training they need, so
they leave Phoenix House not just having changed their inner lives and
sense of themselves and become different people, but also having
different earning power and doing little things like pay taxes and
have bank accounts and be able to take care of children and family
obligations," Rosenthal observed.
For 35 years, according to Phoenix House staffers, the center has been
treating drug abusers -- teaching them not only how to get off drugs,
but how to stay off drugs, and helping them achieve successful lives.
Phoenix House runs some 100 programs in eight states (New York,
California, Florida, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Texas, Rhode
Island, and Vermont), treating nearly 5,500 people each day. Residents
and outpatients are adults and adolescents from diverse backgrounds --
ranging from youngsters in the Massachusetts suburbs who became
entangled with drugs at social clubs to mothers in southern California
struggling to raise their children.
Within the Phoenix House system, there are rigorous residential
treatment centers where drug abusers spend 18 to 24 months.
Adolescents are enrolled in accredited high-school courses and adults
receive vocational training, along with individual, group, and family
counseling. Treatment options for adolescents include outpatient,
after-school, day school, and day programs, as well as residential
academies. Adults can opt for either outpatient or in-house
residential treatment. Phoenix House also has specially designed
programs for prisoners, parolees, mothers, the homeless, those who are
HIV/AIDS-positive, and the mentally ill.
Three-quarters of Phoenix House graduates remain drug-free,
crime-free, and employed three to five years after treatment,
"We understand the drug problem as a problem that requires us to help
save lives, beginning with prevention and efforts to stop young people
from being exposed to drugs," said Walters, the ONDCP chief.
And "we know that this problem begins when young people start using
illegal drugs, alcohol, tobacco, during their teenage years," Walters
said. "Keep young people from using drugs and you will then change
Walters also pointed to another disturbing dimension of the illegal
drug trade: the nexus between organized crime and terrorism, which the
Bush Administration has frequently cited. "It is unacceptable that the
American drug market is the single largest funder of terror in this
hemisphere," he said. "We are not going to let that be our legacy."
He indicated that the United States is working hard to reduce domestic
demand for drugs, and is committed to assisting Colombia in its
efforts to curb drug-related violence within its own borders. "We're
hoping to make [the market for drugs] smaller," Walters said. "We are
going to prevent use, going to treat more effectively, and we're going
to prevent more people from being the kind of victims" that innocent
Colombians have inadvertently become.
"We understand [that] supply and demand have to be addressed
together," he said. "That is why we are going to be more successful
than we ever have before."
Walters also had high praise for Colombia's anti-drug efforts. "Vice
President Santos and President Uribe and their colleagues have been
steadfast in understanding in their own country, as we do in ours,
that this is not a simple task of one thing," he said. "They are
fighting terror, they are fighting the drug markets aggressively and
they are trying to do domestic reform that brings security, economic
development, [and] democratic institutions to all the people of
The United States is "grateful for such friends," Walters said. "We
cannot ask for better understanding or commitment. I want to say
'thank you' for what you're doing every day. We will make sure more
people are standing with you ... and make sure your individual efforts
are as effective as possible."
One key ingredient of U.S. drug policy is to treat those who need
help, Walters added. He emphasized that President Bush "understands
this and made statements that no president before him has made about
our dedication and commitment to provide effective treatment."
Moreover, "we believe that no one -- even those who are more severely
addicted with dependency on illegal drugs and alcohol -- should be
abandoned," Walters said. "We know there are programs like Phoenix
House that take even the most affected individuals and give them a
future: a future of health, a future of recovery. Our goal is to
support more such programs."
He mentioned President Bush's new initiative, known as "Recovery Now,"
which has allocated $200 million annually for three years to ensure
that wherever addicts are found -- in hospital emergency rooms,
schools, the workplace, the criminal justice system or community
centers -- they will be able to get the services they need to turn
their lives around.
The Colombian vice president also talked about his government's
efforts to eradicate coca and poppy fields. "We know it is an uphill
battle," he conceded. But, he added, "we're going to spray all coca
and poppy fields in the next four years so that in 2006 we have as
little coca and poppy" in Colombia as possible. Referring to the base
crops that are processed into cocaine and heroin, respectively, Santos
said: "Our objective is to have zero" coca and poppy plants.
"We're willing to pay the political price ... so that we don't have
coca and poppy fields in Colombia," he said.
(The Washington File is a product of the Office of International
Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:
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