Substance Abuse and Public Administration

Good afternoon ASPA Members:

I am honored to be one of ASPA’s bloggers for this upcoming semester.  I look forward to discussing issues that impact our profession and our lives throughout the course of the year.

One of my areas of interest in substance abuse and the administration of policies that attempt to control the social problem.  I have worked at all levels of American government, in nonprofit treatment and detoxification centers, and encountered the occassional drunken or stoned student in class. While we hear about the problem on the news, we rarely think the problem impacts our profession.  I am working with publishers on three books on that very subject.  Often times, I had to rely upon my primary research, interviews, etc. rather than articles published about this issue in public administration journals. 

Our policies dealing with this issue vary from community-to-community, state-to-state, and even nation-to-nation.  Often times, we ignore the problems that an employee experiences when he or she is addicted to a substance like alcohol, prescription drugs, or illicit ones.  We ignore it until it becomes a problem.  At which point, the person is given a choice to go to treatment or be fired.  The public sector protects the rights of individual in need but do we often ignore those problems?  I say, we do.

For example, how many professors of public administration are trained to deal with the student who attends class intoxicated?  How do we know the student is even intoxicated if he or she is not belligerent?  What about our colleagues who seemed to be “buzzed” all of the time?  I remember having a couple of professors who were obviously alcoholic or drug-addicted.  Instead of dealing straight away with the problem, the person’s colleagues ignored the problem and passively complained.

What about in the public sector workplace?  Colleges and universities have a zero-tolerance policy but it may be ignored until an avoidable situation becomes unavoidable.  In some situations, the intoxicated person is fired immedidately, particularly in areas where one’s health and safety are at stake.  But what about the secretary who takes pain medication and is a bit “flighty” for an hour or two on the job?  What about the caseworker who justifies their actions while under the influence?

Our national policy toward substance abuse is coordinated through the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy.  Several federal agencies control certain aspects of the multifaced issue:  Health and Human Services conducts addiction research; the Justice Department works with domestic and foreign governments to control drugs flowing into the country while tracking down moonshiners (their numbers are growing around the country); Housing and Urban Development attempt to clean up neighborhoods; the Department of Education writes curricula on prevention programs, etc.  State and local agencies attempt to write their own policies that mirror their concerns but match federal policies.  I contend these bureaucracies, those of us who work in public administration, are the policy makers here.

We work with citizens groups.  We talk with industry leaders.  We work with and educate elected officials about the problem and what needs to be done to help us.  But the problem eventually returns to us – the bureaucrat – and we make decisions based upon what we see when that person enters our public treatment facility, is pulled over by the local police, or comes to class intoxicated.

This is a topic that warrants more discussion within and among our field.  I look forward to hearing and reading your comments.

All the best,

Dwight Vick


4 thoughts on “Substance Abuse and Public Administration

  1. Dwight,

    Here is the article that I mentioned in my previous posting. I hope you find it of interest. Please feel free to share it.


    Paula Gordon

    The Harm Caused to Individuals and Society by the Use of Marijuana

    Paula D. Gordon, Ph.D.

    May 27, 2009, Revised December 27, 2009

    The view that marijuana is harmless or even “relatively harmless” is a view that is widely shared. That a view is widely shared does not mean that it is a sound view or that it has any basis in knowledge or fact.

    Of course, the fact that marijuana is a plant that is widely available in nature has nothing to do with the potential harm that it can do if it is smoked or ingested. To assume otherwise is to engage in vague or magical thinking. It is common knowledge that there are plants and substances of all kinds that are harmful if ingested. For instance, hemlock is deadly as are some mushrooms. Smoking anything has some harmful consequences.

    However widely shared a view it may be, the view that marijuana is harmless or even “relatively harmless,” it is a view that reflects a lack of knowledge concerning the immediate and the short term and long term effects of marijuana. It is also a view that reflects a lack of knowledge of the less widely recognized effects of marijuana use of contact highs and flashbacks (spontaneous recurrence of a drug high without using the substance at the time of the recurrence.) Similarly, the view reflects a lack of awareness of the civil liberties implications of being subject to contact highs and other effects as a result of being in the proximity of those who are using marijuana. Certainly, a rational public policy needs to be based on such a knowledge base.

    One way I try to determine what the knowledge base might be of a person who seems unaware of the harmful effects of marijuana is to pose these questions:

    • Do you know of research that shows that the use of marijuana can negatively affect motivation, long and short term memory, concentration, judgment, reasoning, and common sense?

    • Do you know of the research of Harris Isbell and others who found that there can be idiosyncratic psychotomimetic (psychosis-like) effects from the administration of delta 9 THC in human subjects? (Delta 9 THC is the active principle of marijuana.)

    • Do you know of the research findings that marijuana smoke can be inhaled by bystanders who then can experience marijuana highs and idiosyncratic effects?

    • Do you know of the research in humans and animals showing the deleterious changes in lung tissue as a result of exposure to marijuana smoke?

    • Do you know that contact high and flashback effects can occur as a result of the use of marijuana and do you think that the occurrence of such effects can have any negative consequences?

    • Do you see any deleterious impacts to the civil liberties of others, including children, the elderly, mentally impaired, and other sensitive individuals, when they are unwillingly or unwittingly subjected to marijuana smoke or contact highs?

    With regard to the policies that are needed when it comes to psychoactive, mind altering substances, I believe that there should be an increasing emphasis on effective diversion programs (including drug court programs) and early intervention with judicial backup but no record if successful re-education and treatment are completed. Such approaches need to go on hand in hand with a massive prevention-education effort aimed at helping dissuade users from using a substance that has such negative effects on the mental, psychological, and physical health of users and on the health and functioning of those in their proximity, as well as on the overall well being of society.

    After the conclusions of the deliberations in Independence Hall, Benjamin Franklin was asked later by a woman what kind of a government the new nation had. He is said to have replied: “A republic Madame, if we can keep it.” A new question: If we sanction or tacitly encourage the recreational and/or chronic use of psychoactive, mind-altering drugs, including marijuana, and if we do not actively discourage their use, can we still keep our republic? I think not, since keeping our republic depends on an educated and informed psychologically and mentally healthy and stable citizenry who value the common good and who are capable of bring sound reasoning, good judgment, the exercise of common sense, and understanding to bear on recognizing and addressing exceedingly complex and challenging problems and threats that are currently looming before us.

    Answers to the six earlier questions can clearly reflect a very different set of values and assumptions concerning what kind of nation we want America to be, and what kind of nation and what kind of world we want to pass on to the future generations. The answers can also reveal very different knowledge bases concerning the effects of psychoactive, mind-altering drugs and very different perspectives on what constitutes mental and psychological health and what the value of mental and psychological health is. From my vantage point, playing Russian Roulette with anyone’s mental and psychological health is simply not a smart thing to do. Turning any part or all of the United States into an Amsterdam or continuing to allow any part of the United States to evolve into an Amsterdam as is occurring in certain places in Southern and Northern California and Colorado and other places in this nation seriously undermines our capacity to realize the promise of America. From my perspective allowing such devolution to occur in America throws to the winds the great gifts that the Founding Fathers bequeathed to us and entrusted to our keeping, the same gifts that following generations have fought and are fighting to keep.


    Dr. Paula D. Gordon is a consultant, researcher, analyst, writer, speaker, and educator. She has also served in a variety of capacities in the Federal government, including staff officer, policy analyst, and special projects director. She has an extensive background in several domestic policy arenas including drug abuse prevention and homeland security. She is also a former candidate for Congress in California’s 7th District. Her websites at and include her articles, reports, publications, and presentations on drug abuse prevention and homeland security respectively. Her doctoral dissertation, Public Administration in the Public Interest (posted at focuses on complex societal problem solving and governmental change. She is based in Washington, D.C. E-mail:


  2. Dwight,

    Thanks for your response.

    Perhaps, Christine Jewett would entertain the idea of have some articles in the PA Times on this subject. PAR might also be considered, especially a commentary.

    Just some thoughts.

    Paula Gordon


  3. Paula,
    I presented on this topic at the last conference. I have not thought about organizing a panel on public administration and substance abuse issues because there are so few who study the issue. The deadline for the 2011 conference passed in July. We can talk about creating one for the 2012 conference. It’s such an obvious problem (note the number of buzzed drinkers at our conference) that no one wants to talk about the elephant in the workplace, the classroom, and the living room.


  4. Thanks for your posting. Good to know of your efforts in this arena.

    Some additional resources on the topic of substance abuse can be found at . Much of my work on this topic is posted there, along with a recent article of mine on “The Harm Caused to Individuals and Society by the Use of Marijuana.” Some recent references on the the use of marijuana, psychosis, and schizophrenia are also posted there. I hope these resources prove of value to you in your efforts.

    Have you considered organizing a panel on this topic for the next ASPA Conference?

    Paula D. Gordon


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