Courtesy Hartford Courant, Josiah H. Brown

All content is copyrighted and may not be republished or distributed without permission.



Tuesday, January 12, 1999










Josiah H. Brown, who grew up in Hampton, is chief of staff to the president of New School University in New York City.









On a recent bus ride from New York to Hartford, I made a new friend. Let's call him Pedro.

Sitting together, we struck up a conversation that lasted the whole trip. He talked about his past as a convicted drug dealer, and about his current hopes as a recovering heroin addict.

The depth of his transformation was striking. Friendly, polite and astonishingly self-aware, he recounted -- and lamented -- his youth.

Not interested in school, he had dropped out to enter the drug trade. Initially, he was not himself a regular user. Instead, it was the money and the lure of peer pressure that led him to drugs. He was successful, able to enjoy a relatively extravagant lifestyle, a fancy car and so on.

But gradually the narcotics that he was selling began to exert their hold. He thought he could dabble in heroin. He became addicted.

Here, Pedro's introspection -- cultivated by intense sessions of Narcotics Anonymous -- was impressive. As if repenting, he grimly elaborated on the sins that serviced big addiction: lying, theft, violence.

With profound regret, he recalled how he had hurt other people in seeking to maintain his habit. He robbed members of his family, hooked others on his poison and got caught up in gang wars.

A member of the Los Solidos gang, he tangled with the rival Latin Kings and participated in shootings that threatened innocent bystanders. That memory, in particular, pains him.

Prison, and especially Narcotics Anonymous, chastened him. He was repeatedly behind bars, for 18 months at the longest. But only in recent years, when sentencing became more severe, did jail emerge as a strong deterrent.

At the same time, he hit bottom with heroin. After several lapses in rehab, he prevailed. He's now been clean for more than two years.

He cites dual reasons for his recovery, God and NA, as he calls it. Though his mother is religious, Pedro had been (obviously) a nonbeliever during his years of crime. But he's experienced a spiritual awakening in which faith has played a critical part.

Reinforcing this religious element is the culture of self-examination, self-criticism and group expression characteristic of NA and similar organizations. In Pedro's case, NA has provided a vital system of support. He has friends who understand his problem and mentors who can show him how to stay clean.

It was moving to hear him speak with gratitude about having a respectable job and about little things, such as being able to share holidays with his family.

During his years of involvement with drugs, Pedro said,, he had tuned out those occasions in search of a quick buck or a quick fix. Now, he readily accepts material deprivations -- like the lack of a car -- and savors the psychological stability, the normality, he has achieved.

His aspirations, beyond simply remaining free of drugs, include getting an education. Clearly smart, he will soon complete his G.E.D. and wants to pursue college study.

I encouraged him to consider becoming a counselor; the New School's master's degree in substance-abuse counseling appealed to him as a future possibility. Almost 30, he is eager to employ his troubled past as a lesson for the next generation.

Pedro's observations on public policy -- especially drug policy -- are worth noting. While favoring decriminalization of marijuana as well as a greater emphasis on prevention, he adamantly opposes efforts to legalize cocaine, heroin and other hard drugs.

They're ``too dangerous and addictive,'' he insists.

He also credits stiffer sentencing, not only as a deterrent to his own criminal activity but as an important factor in the national reduction in urban crime.

As he acknowledges, Pedro still faces a difficult path. He must compensate for years of lost schooling, and resist the temptation to revert to the ways of his youth. But he is a changed person, who fully comprehends the errors of those ways.

I think he's going to make it.