Interview with Christopher Kennedy Lawford, UN drug agency Goodwill Ambassador

Christopher Kennedy Lawford, UNODC Goodwill Ambassador on Drug Dependence Treatment and Care

28 March 2011 – Actor, writer, lawyer, activist and public speaker Christopher Kennedy Lawford spoke with the UN News Centre from Vienna today on his new role as Goodwill Ambassador on Drug Dependence Treatment and Care for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the first of its kind for the UN agency.

During his two year appointment, Mr. Kennedy Lawford will focus on raising public awareness and generating support for UNODC global programmes aimed at drug demand reduction, drug dependence treatment and care.

UN News Centre: Why did you accept this appointment?

Christopher Kennedy Lawford: This is an issue which has impacted my life in many, many ways. I had a substance abuse problem for 15 years when I was younger, I overcame that and have been in recovery now for 25 years. In all of that time, I have been doing work with other people who have also struggled with this disease. But only recently, in the last seven years, have I put a public face to that in terms of dealing with issues of policy and, on a bigger stage, in terms of trying to get people help and change policy in my country and advocate for issues. In terms of a global partner to work wiIt is possible with education to change the way people behave and it is possible with treatment to change the behaviour of people who have drug, there’s nobody more substantive and more invested, I think, than the United Nations. They do work all over the world on a variety of levels, in terms of this issue and they’re very committed to trying to increase access to treatment and care, which is what I really care about.

UN News Centre: What did you know of UNODC before being approached for the Goodwill Ambassador position and what was your reaction to that approach?

Christopher Kennedy Lawford: I didn’t know much about UNODC when I first heard about them. A friend of mine who works in Canada in the non-profit world and does a lot of work with substance abuse disorders told me about UNODC a couple of years ago. About a year ago, I was invited to speak at a conference here – the US delegation was here, my friend Tom McLellan who was the Assistant Director of the White House Office on Drug Policy was here – and I gave a speech and at that time, I met a lot of the folks at the UN and they said “we’d love to do work with you.” It’s taken over a year to figure out how we were going to do that and being a Goodwill Ambassador seemed the best way to accomplish what both of us want to do.

UN News Centre: How does your own past experience with drug addiction inform your activities today?

UNODC Executive Director Yury Fedotov (left) and new Goodwill Ambassador Christopher Kennedy Lawford.

Christopher Kennedy Lawford: I have a certain understanding about it that I don’t think you can have unless you’ve been through it, but I don’t think that gives me any sort of unique perspective. I think the folks that are in this field understand the issue really well, they have enormous compassion for the people dealing with this issue – sometimes even more than I do! The thing that I think that I have which is really valuable, is that I’ve been there, and I believe that all those people that suffer from this illness have a responsibility once they know they have this illness, they become accountable for treating the illness. Having been through it myself, I can speak first-hand how important that is, the idea of accountability. And also, people who are drug-dependent folks around the world, they can be empowered to do something about their illness, [to see] that this is not a hopeless situation.

UN News Centre: How did you feel about taking up this role for UNODC?

Christopher Kennedy Lawford: I’m enormously grateful to do it, primarily because UNODC has never had an ambassador for this; they’ve never had a Goodwill Ambassador dedicated to treatment and care issues and that’s an enormously good thing for the field. It gives a stature to this that it has never had before. The United Nations is the gold standard in terms of an organization that does global work, so for me to be associated with them in this way is a great honour. I’m just the first of many ambassadors for treatment and care issues and I’m enormously grateful to do that, but I’m more grateful that we’re on the road to this kind of legitimacy.

UN News Centre: Is there a risk that your celebrity overshadows the extensive work you have done in the area of treatment for drug addiction?

Christopher Kennedy Lawford speaks about drug use.

Christopher Kennedy Lawford: I think they complement each other. I’ve been enormously blessed in my life to be born to a situation where I was given a lot of advantage, a lot of advantage that normal folks don’t get just because of an accident of birth. I realize that and in my family, we grew up with the adage “to whom much is given, much is expected,” so I don’t ever look at this as anything but a blessing. I think celebrity in our world – and I have a little bit of celebrity, there are plenty of people who are much more well-known than I am that they [UNODC] could have gotten – I think what I bring to this is somebody who is committed, who understands this from a variety of different perspectives, and who is really going to work hard at it because I believe in it. It’s become my life – that is the reason I’m at UNODC, because I’m interested in results, I’m not interested in titles or honours. I’m really interested in trying to help people and I think the people I’ve met at UNODC feel the same way.

UN News Centre: How will you find time to balance your new role with your other activities?

Drug user receiving medical care in Hanoi, Viet Nam.

Christopher Kennedy Lawford: I spend a lot of time on what I do. I’m writing another book now on probably the 50 most amazing people that are dealing with this issue. I’m interviewing them and I’m offering people a bible, if you will, of the most credible and most current information on addictive disease in the world, and that takes a lot time; my work with UNODC takes a lot of time; my personal advocacy, which is working with other alcoholics and drug addicts one person at a time takes a lot time – but I have a lot of energy and life is short! I believe we’re here to help one another and there’s nothing that gives me greater joy than to do that. I do all this stuff because it makes me feel good, my kids understand that, my girlfriend understands that and often times we get to do that together, so it works out pretty well.

UN News Centre: What will be the criteria for you and UNODC to decide on the success of your ambassadorship?

Christopher Kennedy Lawford: The ink hasn’t dried on the announcement yet, so we’re trying to figure that out! But this is what I think: first of all, we have to raise awareness. We have to convince other individuals who are in positions of influence around the world to become public about this and become active. We have to find money as this is an area where we are woefully under-funded given the seriousness of this issue on a global scale and the amount of money it costs our society. People just do not give money to this cause – there are a lot of causes to give money to, don’t get me wrong – but we need to find some money. I think the other thing is to begin to move past the realm of stigma, discrimination and judgement about this issue into a time when we really look at this issue as just another health issue, and if we can do some of that in the next few years, we’ll have done well.

UN News Centre: Given the amount of money involved in the illicit drug business, is it realistic to think that drug usage will be ever be brought under control?

Christopher Kennedy Lawford: I don’t ever think we’re ever going to get rid of them, these substances. But I do think that with education and with treatment we can make a huge difference. When I grew up we didn’t know anything about illicit drugs to the degree that we understand them today, so I engaged in this behaviour not knowing anything. My kids have had a different experience. They come from the same genetic pool that I did, they may have the disease in their blood just like I did, but they have me as their father and I have told them the facts. I have given them the information and they have made different decisions – it is possible with education to change the way people behave and it is possible with treatment to change the behaviour of people who have drug dependence. So I think we may never get rid of the substances, but we’ll certainly decrease demand. We’ve done it with smoking in my country and other countries around the world. We’ve completely, in 25 years, had a 180 degree change in the way society engages tobacco. We can do the same for drugs and alcohol.

UNODC Executive Director Yury Fedotov visiting the Jangalak Treatment Centre in Kabul, Afghanistan.

This is an issue like many health issues, certainly in my country, if you have money in the United States of America and you have a drug dependence, you can get help – but if you don’t, it’s more difficult. And that happens all over the world. There are countries where this is a huge problem and they are low- and middle-income countries, and they don’t have any resources for battling this and it’s sapping their strength. UNODC and some NGOs [non-governmental organizations] realize this and they’re the only ones who are working to help the governments and the people of the world who have less of the resources and the ability to deal with issues like this. So I think we have to always remember – and this is one of the things that I hope to do – to remind us that there are folks in society who are marginalized and unable to access the kind of treatment and care that some others can to find their way to recovery, and we have to keep our eye on the underlying societal causes and conditions that keep people in that cycle of hopelessness and despair.

UN News Centre: Have you had a chance yet to get some tips for your new role from your fellow UNODC Goodwill Ambassador, Mira Sorvino?

Christopher Kennedy Lawford: I don’t know her that well, but I would love to talk to her about her experiences; this is a new role for me and I will get information from anybody that I can get information from and if they happen to be a beautiful actress who is also the daughter of a friend of mine, I’d love that.

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