Reed Tuckson, who served as the District’s health commissioner in the late 1980s, described Clark as a man on a mission — “a mission that caused him to confront life in all of its ugliness, pain and sorrow; a mission that was dedicated to making roses bloom out of the soil of despair.”
RAP, which stands for Regional Addiction Prevention, opened its doors in 1970 during a heroin epidemic. Then came the deadly scourge of crack cocaine and PCP, which persists along with a surge in opioid and synthetic marijuana overdoses.
Keeping up with the demand for treatment required heroic efforts. Especially for RAP, which was geared toward helping addicts and alcoholics who are often written off by society — those who are black, poor, homeless, ex-offenders, HIV-infected.
Clark came from Los Angeles, where he was a recovering heroin addict. He went on to become a drug counselor working in the Nevada prison system; a director of a residential treatment project in New York; then came to the District at the invitation of two former Catholic priests who felt the city was not doing enough to help drug addicts recover.
“I came to meet with them one weekend and never left,” Clark recalled in a speech he gave at a ceremony honoring him for lifetime achievement in 2012.
At RAP, Clark pioneered a therapeutic approach to addiction aimed not just at detoxing the body but also the mind. Many of his clients were African Americans, and he wanted to help them rid themselves of the poisonous effects of racism — the inferiority complexes, the low self-esteem, internalized oppression and self-hatred.
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In a residential treatment setting that could last more than a year, patients studied African and African American history. Jazz musicians, black poets and artists performed and participated in group therapy sessions. Recovering addicts received nutrition counseling, reading lessons and job-skills training.
In the early years, smoking cigarettes was forbidden, as was the use of sugar at mealtimes. Red meat was served only occasionally.
“Ron Clark was way ahead of his time, and in many ways, we’ve gone backward because a lot of people still don’t appreciate the importance of his approach,” said Edwin Chapman, a medical doctor in the District who specializes in treating heroin and opioid addiction.
“Ron’s approach was to get to the core of a person’s being, find out what’s missing, what’s been lost, what’s been stolen and help them discover their real identity and recover their true self,” Chapman added.
Without understanding the impact of those losses, Chapman said, “we will look at addiction as a moral problem and conclude that the addict used drugs because he was weak instead of being in pain.”
Despite the many successes in putting drug addicts and alcoholics on a path to recovery, substance abuse problems are as serious today as they were when RAP opened.
In the District, overdose deaths from fentanyl jumped from 13 in 2014 to 182 in 2017, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During the same period, heroin-involved deaths increased from 37 to 127 and prescription opioid-involved deaths skyrocketed from 23 to 358.
Some deaths involved a brand of fentanyl so powerful that it is used as an elephant tranquilizer.
In Maryland, the number of deaths involving synthetic opioids rose from 52 in 2012 to 1,542 in 2017. Heroin-involved overdose deaths dropped to 522 in 2017 after a dramatic increase between 2012 and 2016. There were 711 deaths involving prescription opioids in 2017, a slight decline from the year before.
In Virginia, overdose deaths involving mainly fentanyl increased from 89 in 2012 to 829 in 2017. Opioid deaths involving heroin also increased during the same period, from 121 to 556. Deaths from prescription opioids remain relatively unchanged, with 404 reported fatal overdoses in 2017.
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And there’s synthetic marijuana, called K2, which has been found to contain brodifacoum, a rat poison. As of July, there had been more than 3,000 reported K2 overdoses in the District this year, more than doubling the 1,300 cases reported during the same period in 2018. None was fatal.
“What also troubles me is the rise we are seeing in PCP use,” said Michael Pickering, who took over as executive director at RAP in 2014, when Clark retired as he struggled with Parkinson’s disease.
Clark would be looking for a way to reach those users, too.
Angela Owens Clark, who was married to him for 35 years, recalled how impressed she was with her future husband when they met. “I could tell from the beginning that he was a very serious man and that RAP would be the center of his life,” she told me.
Their son, Paul Clark, noted, “He didn’t just want to see individuals recover. He wanted the communities where they came from to recover.”
To help get that process started, RAP required that residents give back to the community however they could: picking and distributing fresh vegetables from nearby farms; distributing free clothing to families in need; shoveling snow for the elderly; keeping street and alleys around the facilities clean and free of litter.
However, most of these activities had to be cut amid funding shortages and reductions in the number of days that insurance companies and other agencies would pay for residential drug treatment.
But the work of recovery continues.
“Ron used to say that physical withdrawal was a small part of breaking an addiction,” Owens Clark recalled. “The difficult part was getting to know and love yourself, then learn to live differently by loving others.”
Now, a new generation must learn that lesson without his leadership.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.
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