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Journey From Addict to Drug Czar


Kattie Portis can spot different kinds of heroin - China white and red. She knows how much the drug sells for on Boston playgrounds. And she's had run-ins with the law.

Ms. Portis was hooked on heroin for five years in the 1960s. But - realizing how much her six kids needed her - she entered a drug-treatment program, got her high-school equivalency degree, and went on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees. She has run her own drug-treatment center for women for 20 years.

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But now Portis is vaulting into a bigger role: She is Boston's first drug czar.

Like many American cities, Boston is jumping to action as teen drug rates are surging and a cheaper, more-lethal heroin is hitting the streets.

The former-addict-turned-crusader begins her new job today. And although there's no blueprint for success in this new business, Portis is determined to be part catalyst, coach, and cheerleader for change in the Boston area, where she thinks the time is right.

"People want change. They are afraid for their children," Portis says.

Boston is not alone. Studies over the past five years show that more youths are experimenting with drugs at younger ages. And despite the record $15 billion the government spent fighting the drug war last year, more illegal substances are available on playgrounds today at the lowest prices ever.

While the Clinton administration has appointed retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey as national drug czar, several cities have created part-time positions for drug officials. Chicago has had a full-time substance-abuse policy position for nearly three years.

But many experts see these new jobs as primarily good public relations tools. Sure, the drug officials focus public attention on the problem, the experts say, but they also provide a platform for their political leaders to show they are doing something about the drug problem.

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Verbal messages from parents, teachers, and politicians are important, says John Walters, a former deputy in the drug policy office of the Bush administration. But "talk is hollow and ultimately makes young people more cynical if the talk is not backed up by action."

PORTIS, a slight and savvy grandmother, is determined to act. With her knowledge of the drug underworld, and success in helping others kick drug habits, she intends to do more than boost Boston Mayor Thomas Menino's popularity.

She plans to bring together all the people and programs she has come in contact with, as well as network with antidrug officials in other cities.

Stretching her long, lean arms on the table in front of her in a recent interview, Portis is all business. Rolling up her sleeves, she ticks off the problems she sees and points to ways to correct them.

First, she says, the problem of supply needs to be attacked, and that's where the police come in. She says drug sellers are as organized and smart as the people who conduct market surveys for local supermarkets.

She says it's no accident that just as the use of crack - the most common street drug here in the late '80s and early '90s - began to subside, that dealers switched to heroin. Today a bag of the drug sells for about $5 on the streets. And needles, which once turned off many users, are no longer needed; heroin can now be smoked or snorted like crack and cocaine.

The other side is curbing demand, she says. "We have to get the community singing the same tune."

Portis is tired from just having completed the final two weeks of her last job while fulfilling the appearances the mayor's office has scheduled for her, but she speaks emphatically about mobilizing the community.

She says police officers - who once followed her around the streets to arrest the prostitutes she was trying to help - are realizing that even their children are not immune. And judges are getting tired of locking up the same people over and over.

And, she says, thousands of women who went through her drug treatment program are ready to hit the streets to help.

Of utmost importance, Portis says, is binding families and communities together. "We have children who have grown up in homeless shelters who don't have a lot of hope," Portis says. "We have to teach them self-help, not welfare."

Where she grew up in rural Alabama, she says people looked out for one another. If parents of one family worked, or a woman was raising children alone, neighbors pitched in. Portis wants to bring that kind of community to Boston.

She also intends to network with people like Susan Weed, who has been Chicago's director of substance-abuse policy since October 1994.

Ms. Weed says she is anxious to speak with Portis as well. She says that after three years, she has learned many lessons and has much to share. Weed says she is proud of her office's accomplishments, but cites three favorites.

It just received a charter to start a school for kids coming out of substance- abuse treatment. A nonprofit corporation will run the school, which will open for 50 students this summer. "I think we're going to have 15 applications for every slot," Weed says proudly. Her office has also begun an alcohol and drug-free "Safe Night" program on New Year's Eve. And Chicago opened the country's first juvenile drug court in October.

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