NOEL KING, HOST:
Opioid addiction is taking a huge toll on this country. In 2016, more than 63,000 Americans died from overdoses. We're going to meet a woman whose parents suffered from addiction. And so she dedicated her life to keeping herself and others from becoming addicts. Her name is Jessica Hulsey Nickel, and she runs the Addiction Policy Forum.
JESSICA HULSEY NICKEL: I think my first advocacy day when it comes to addiction was in kindergarten. I was in Mrs. Dean's (ph) kindergarten class. And for my first show and tell, I came to school wanting to talk about heroin and that you shouldn't use it and if your parents started to, these are some things you should be thinking about. And Mrs. Dean, in a very lovely way, helped me edit some of the content of my first talk to talk about good medicines and bad medicines. And you shouldn't take a medicine unless your parent or a doctor gives it to you. So...
KING: That is amazing.
NICKEL: You know, I found my calling when I was 5 years old. And I've been pretty focused on it ever since.
KING: When you were a teenager - I mean, opioids, drugs are a big temptation for a lot of teenagers. That's a big part of the problem in this country. Were you ever tempted?
NICKEL: No. I mean, my grandmother told me very early on that alcohol was no different than the drugs that was killing my parents. So I had a very clear line and an expectation that I drew for myself that I would not drink or do anything until I turned 21. The science behind that is about brain development. The earlier we start drinking - marijuana, cigarettes, whatever it might be - the more damage you do, particularly if you're someone like me that has a genetic predisposition to addiction, which I'm going to assume that I have. And so I gave my somewhat susceptible brain more time to develop and protect itself.
KING: And then you grow up, and you actually go into policy. You worked in Congress, helping to write drug policy. And most recently, you worked with the Obama administration on the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. Tell me about that.
NICKEL: So about five years ago, we started working on this idea. We have to avoid this impulse to just focus on opioids or just focus on methamphetamines or just focus on heroin - whatever that might be - because the drugs change, but the addiction and the underlying medical condition doesn't. And we also need to steer clear of this impulse we have to focus on only one solution. It's not just prevention or just treatment or just overdose reversal or just law enforcement that's going to fix this problem. It is complicated and needs a comprehensive response.
KING: Do you have any concerns that the current administration will continue to support this and that Congress will continue to fund it?
NICKEL: So Congress has funded CARA - it's our shorthand. They provided $153 million.
NICKEL: Right now Congress has increased that money from 153 to $178 million for FY18.
NICKEL: So they are putting their money where their mouth is.
KING: Do you have children yourself?
NICKEL: I do. I have three sons.
KING: Three sons. How old are they?
NICKEL: They are 14, 12 and 9.
KING: So what do you tell them about drugs and alcohol? Do you worry at all?
NICKEL: Not really.
KING: How? Every mother in America is going to want to know how your answer could be not really.
NICKEL: Yeah. I - this is part of our dinnertime conversation, so they know that they have a genetic load, meaning that addiction runs in their family. So they're going to have to be more careful. They also understand the brain and my expectation. Every time I have a glass of wine in the presence of one of my children, it's a teachable moment. I can talk about - so hey, why can I have this glass of wine, and you can't? And my - sort of my oldest will say - he explains it as sort of the "Star Wars" metaphor - that my brain has a force field around it, and his is still in development. So he's going to wait to make sure he gives his brain time to put that up.
KING: That's pretty good for a teenage boy.
NICKEL: Thank you. Yeah. He's pretty smart.
KING: Jessica Hulsey Nickel runs the Addiction Policy Forum. Jessica, thank you so much for coming in.
NICKEL: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.