State Department official has spent career waging a global war on drug addiction


Thomas Browne poses for a portrait at his home in Maryland. (Yue Wu/The Washington Post)
August 13

Thomas Browne went to Afghanistan to fight a war.

His fight though was at the epicenter of the country’s heroin issue. As part of his work for the State Department, he was there to create drug treatment and prevention programs in a nation known as ground zero of poppy production.

Afghanistan’s drug-addiction problem — one of the world’s worst — swallowed up men, women and even children.

“It was the most challenging treatment program I ever had to establish,” said Browne, an official in the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

Browne, deputy director of the Office of Anti-Crime Programs, is internationally recognized for his work in Afghanistan and other countries. Now, at 61, he is a finalist for the 2014 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals career achievement award. Winners of the important medals will be announced in September.

In Afghanistan, women were disproportionately battling addiction. In an ultra-patriarchal society, Browne and his team had to persuade men to allow women to receive treatment.

And where the women went, so did their children — which ultimately was critical.

“This wasn’t the typical program where the mother’s there and there’s a day care,” Browne said. “In this case, moms and kids were being treated together.”

Children as young as 4 struggled with heroin dependency, he said, often given the drug to alleviate pain or to stop their crying.

“With a kid it’s much more heart-wrenching,” Browne said.

What Browne and his team eventually ended up with were special treatments for women, children and men. The approach was holistic, treating families, addressing their physical, mental and emotional health. It’s a model that Browne has taken into other countries.

“I like telling the Afghans, ‘You helped innovate,’ ” Browne said.

William R. Brownfield, the assistant secretary in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, described Browne as possibly the world’s leading expert on treatment and prevention. The agency has active programs in 69 countries.

“Thom works in the most difficult and hostile environments that you can find,” he said. “If we have a program in a country, it is a country whose own institutions are not strong enough to address the issue themselves.”

Browne’s job is to help set up those programs and to train people in their home country so they can continue the work.

In addition to Afghanistan, Browne has worked in countries such as Brazil, Colombia and South Africa.

“If you can get the job done in these countries, you can get it done anywhere in the world,” Browne said.

In Brazil, where crack cocaine has been a problem, he pioneered child drug-addiction programs that focused on rehabilitation rather than incarceration.

In Colombia, he and his team set mentoring and treatment efforts in Medellin, then-drug king Pablo Escobar’s back yard.

And in South Africa, not long after apartheid ended, they worked in Cape Town, where drug-war violence included the practice of necklacing — when a tire would be placed around a person’s neck, doused with gasoline, then set on fire.

“We put ourselves in harm’s way to broker that truce,” Browne said. The truce allowed his team to create awareness programs in mosques, churches and schools.

“We always talk about that was one of the most intense situations we had been in,” Browne said.

The only child of Sicilian immigrants, Browne was born in New York City and grew up in an extended family that believed in public service and the law.

“I don’t give a damn what you do in life as long as it’s honest,” his mother would tell him when he was growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s and 1960s.

She sent him to boarding school in Maryland, and he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of Maryland. The crime and drug use in his neighborhood motivated his career choice, he said. And though his work has taken him around the world, it started in earnest in the District.

In graduate school, he got involved in Second Genesis, a local substance-abuse treatment center. He met James Hendricks, a fellow New Yorker, who had battled heroin addiction. Hendricks became Browne’s mentor, teaching him much of what has guided his work.

Hendricks didn’t graduate from high school but ultimately received bachelor’s and master’s degrees while doing life-changing work with recovering addicts. His example helped sharpen Browne’s own belief in rehabilitation and redemption.

There’s a reckless fearlessness that comes with taking a deadly drug, Browne said, but if it’s harnessed correctly during rehabilitation, it can be truly powerful.

“Guys like that aren’t afraid to try,” Browne said. “If you’re willing to take the risk on something that can’t kill you, you’ll fight another day.”

About 5 percent of the world’s population deals with drug abuses each year, he said, referencing to the U.N. World Drug Report.

“If it’s held constant at 5 percent that means our prevention and treatment programs are working and doing something,” Browne said.

Drugs often are popular in cycles, he said. The current U.S. heroin spike, for example, is a result of a crackdown on prescription drug abuse. Fortunately, Browne said, the country is much better equipped for handling abusers than the initial spread of the drug.

His work has brought him other lasting friendships.

He met Father Harold Rahm in Athens, where Rahm was lecturing on addiction. In college, Browne had read Rahm’s book “Office in the Alley.” The two struck up a conversation.

“I have traveled with Thom in many countries and seen how he helps many other projects,” said Rahm, a Jesuit priest who at 95 still does treatment work in Brazil.

Browne doesn’t expect to be working as long as his friend. He’s thinking about what it would be like to retire, to spend more time with his wife, Susan, a former Defense Department employee, his two sons — Jason and Michael — and his German shepherds.

Jason, 27, is continuing the family’s tradition of public service and law enforcement, Browne said.

Nothing about Browne’s retirement plans is final — maybe it will be in the next few years — maybe even then he’ll still consult, he said.

There’s a 1982 Washington Post story that quotes Browne and Hendricks about the PCP epidemic. Browne was working with the Prince George’s County Drug Advisory Council at the time. The two friends are photographed together during a meeting.

The Post, he jokes, is bookmarking his career.

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