View from the Hill: You’ve Got a Friend

In late 2003, a new coalition was formed in Washington. Led by Dr. Bill Dewey and Dr. Charles O’Keefe of Virginia Commonwealth University and its College on Problems of Drug Dependence, the Friends of NIDA held its first meeting. Its mission, then and now, is to advocate for the use of science to bring an end to substance abuse and addiction. The Friends do so through advocacy, education and communication, advocating for a level of resources for NIDA that reflects the tremendous personal, social and economic burden of drug abuse and addiction.

Included in the coalition are such prominent advocacy organizations as the American Psychological Association, the National Association of State Alcohol and Drug Abuse Directors (NASADAD), Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA,) the American Psychiatric Association, The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) and the International Certification and Reciprocity Consortium (IC&RC.)

“The Friends of NIDA is an organization that is organized around a consensus message about drug abuse and what needs to be done to understand and treat it,” said Marie Dyak, Executive Director of the Entertainment Industries Council. “It does what it is designed to do: advocate for science-based research to treat a very complex disease, aspects of which do not exist in so many other chronic illnesses.”

The Friends are most well known for its briefings on Capitol Hill. Always well attended—sometimes by more than a hundred Congressional staff—it seeks to inform policy-makers of the benefits of NIDA research, as well as its “real-world” applications. Briefings almost always include an introduction by NIDA Director, Dr. Nora Volkow, and feature one or two NIDA-funded scientists who explain their research. Often, someone who has benefited from treatment based on NIDA research also speaks. Briefing subjects try to blend NIDA research priorities with important political topics, such as treatment for veterans, prescription drug abuse and methamphetamine addiction. Other briefing topics include drug use and HIV, the role of genetics in substance abuse, and treatment in the criminal justice system. The briefings are always presented in conjunction with the Congressional Addiction, Treatment and Recovery Caucus. Members of Congress, including ATR Caucus chair Rep. Patrick Kennedy, Rep. Grace Napolitano, Rep. Brian Baird and Rep. Rick Larsen, have frequently attended and spoken at the briefings.

One memorable briefing, on the subject of prescription drug abuse, featured a 19 year old from Massachusetts named Nick, who spoke about his addiction to prescription drugs, how it led to other abuses and its effect on his life and his family. As he paused several times to compose himself, he worked his way through his story and clearly made an impact on almost everyone in attendance. He courageously told his compelling story of becoming addicted to Vicodin and OxyContin. He noted that over time, he also became addicted to heroin and found that he no longer recognized his life. Nick also spent time in the criminal justice system and was at one point pronounced dead in an emergency room. At that point, he said that he chose to muster his strength to dedicate himself to a treatment regimen that included the medication buprenorphine as an adjunct to counseling. Since then, Nick said that he is growing stronger every day and is appreciative of the opportunity to be an active and important part of society.

Nick was asked to review for the audience core “take home messages.” Nick called on a strong investment in prevention programming—from the elementary grades through high school. In addition, he explained that addiction “does not discriminate” and noted that the treatment protocols made possible through the research at NIDA literally saved his life.

It is these presentations, unfiltered and unpolished, that give a human face to the benefits of NIDA research. Other memorable speakers include those who partook in a briefing on nicotine and tobacco addiction, including Shirley Reimer, a patient who quit smoking through the National Quitline, and shared the story of her success, and Preston Young, a patient who quit smoking during a translational clinical research study funded by NIDA, who spoke about his personal experience with nicotine addiction.

 “The Friends of NIDA has done an excellent job educating Congress on the benefits of investing federal resources into addiction research,” said Rob Morrison, Executive Director of NASADAD. “Through Hill briefings that feature NIDA-funded researchers and people in recovery telling their stories, policymakers make the connection between the front-end investment and the dividends seen in their District.”

Like many advocacy-based coalitions in Washington, the Friends are almost always most busy during the appropriations season. Thanks in large part to Ed Long of Van Scoyoc Associates, the Friends are always successful in including comments in the reports accompanying both House and Senate appropriations legislation. This “report language,” as it is called in D.C., expresses support from the committees for specific work being done at NIDA, and encourages it to continue in the future. Such congressional support is critical to a government agency such as NIDA, as continued funding is a large part of the recipe for progress.

The Friends also receive leadership and advice from a very knowledgeable and influential Board of Advisors. Many former ONDCP and NIDA directors sit on the board, including General Barry McCaffery, Dr. Alan Leshner (Currently the CEO of The American Association for the Advancement of Science), Dr. Bob Dupont and Dr. Charles Schuster. Also on the board is former U.S. Representative and Chair of the House Committee on Commerce, Thomas Bliley.

The leadership of NIDA has always been appreciative of the Friends efforts. Cindy Miner, Director of the NIDA Science Policy Division, remarked, “Through their educational efforts, the Friends of NIDA have been an important ally in raising the public’s awareness of NIDA’s scientific achievements in addiction research, and consequently helping to reduce the stigma of addiction.”

(Materials from all Friends of NIDA briefings can be found at

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