John Whitaker Takes on Another ‘Family Affair’ in Drug Policy Reform

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After getting sober, John Whitaker became a licensed drug counselor and worked in rehab facilities and prisons throughout California. He’s on the board of directors for Alcohol Justice in Marin County and is the Los Angeles director of A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment and Healing).

In addition, Whitaker is also working on a documentary about the groundbreaking drug policies in Portugal, the first country to legalize all drugs.

In his exclusive interview with, John Whitaker talks about his upcoming documentary, the role his family had in helping him get sober and how the U.S. prison system needs to change in order to better help addicts.

How did the documentary you’re working on come about?

John:  I was a Mormon missionary all over Portugal 35 years ago and fell in love with both the country and the people there. One of my friends and converts from Portugal said she was coming over. She had a five-year-old son when I first met her, but now he was 15. He was getting into some trouble and even though I wasn’t doing everything I should, I didn’t want him to get into any more trouble than he already had. I said he either needed to go into the Army or go to California, live with Grandma and Grandpa, and graduate from high school.

The spokeperson for the governmental organization that oversees the policies in Portugal came to a DPA (Drug Policy Alliance) conference that I attended in 2012. I was fascinated by it. I had heard about Portugal’s policies, but not to that extent, and decided I wanted to get more information and do a documentary.

I didn’t have any money and didn’t have the time because I was working full-time for a treatment center. My mother passed away two years ago in November and I got a little bit of the benefit from the sale of my family home. I had just finished working as a reentry counselor at Lancaster State Prison and had the time and money, so I decided to go to the Lisbon Addictions Conference last September. I did some interviews and have gone back in March and May of this year. The plan now is to hopefully return in September or October and do the documentary.

Growing up Mormon, is it safe to say you hadn’t experimented with drugs until adulthood?

John:  I never experimented, but accidentally ate pot brownies in high school. I was on the debate team and some girls had some brownies to sell for our club, but one of the

girls had put marijuana in them. I bought four of them and because I’m still a food addict even today, I ate all of them at once. [Laughs]. Thirty minutes later, I got up to speak in front of the judge and my debate partner and started laughing uncontrollably. I was definitely high. My debate partner was so angry, but she understood what happened when I explained it to her.

When did your drug use first began?

John:  My precipitous event into drug use was my divorce. I came home from a mission trip in Portugal, got married, and four years later she decided she wanted nothing to do with me. She wanted to be with the guy who threw my bachelor party.

I had been a good Mormon boy and thought that drugs and alcohol were bad, but I had lost my faith in God and the church. I said that it’s all B.S. and that God doesn’t exist because this wouldn’t have happened if he did. I started going to bars at that time and realized that, hey, this was kind of fun.

What was the catalyst for you to get sober?

John:  My family held an intervention on September 12, 1997. They said if I didn’t get clean and sober, they would excommunicate me from the family. I took that to heart, but didn’t get sober for another two weeks. September 25 is my actual sobriety date.

When I finally did get into an intensive outpatient treatment program for 15 days, I had agreed to get sober for 30 days, so I got sober before going into the program.

Did your work in the recovery world start shortly after getting sober?

John:  In 12-Step programs, we have a program called Hospitals and Institutions, where 12-Step program members go to treatment centers, hospitals and jails and bring a meeting to places where people can’t necessarily go out to them. In one of these meetings, they asked if anyone spoke Spanish and I do. They had five English speakers and 15 Spanish speakers. Even though my language ability was great, we have our own language in recovery and our own way of saying and doing things. I didn’t know the lingo in Spanish, so I’d do one sentence in English and then another in Spanish. I knew this wasn’t a way to run an H&I panel.

I started a non-profit organization on my father’s birthday in 2003 called Pasos Por Pasos (Step By Step). A friend of mine in the 12-Step program, another white boy who spoke good Spanish, helped me found it along with another sponsee of mine. The idea was to get treatment and recovery for the monolingual individual that’s looking for it. It became a really important part for me to get into the recovery world.

In 18 months, I completed the classes to get my certification to become a substance abuse counselor and in 2004, I started working for a treatment center in Malibu.

I loved my recovery and sobriety and now I could share it knowingly. Not just with my own personal recovery story, but I knew enough about the medical workings of the brain to understand how the addicts’ brain works and how to be able to help others.

You’ve worked as a counselor in prisons. How do you feel that the prison system can be more effective in working with addicted inmates?

John:  For one, the U.S. prison system houses 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. That’s got to change. Our archaic ideas about people who are drug addicts are bad people has got to change. We’ve got to help the world understand that addiction is a disease and the people who have this disease need to be treated, not incarcerated.

The reason I’m doing the documentary is because the United States will never be able to end the prison industrial complex. We’re just too involved in that way. Portugal has got it right. They’re treating people with low-level, nonviolent drug offenses and getting them treatment. HIV infections have gone down by 75 percent there and drug-related crimes have gone down by 50 percent. Within the government itself, it’s no longer a topic of discussion.

They’ve accepted that the money, resources and human lives which have been saved make it worth continuing to do.

Image Courtesy of John Whitaker

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