“Youth substance use is not inevitable.” Dr. Robert DuPont on substance misuse, and the power of prevention.

With more than 50 years of experience in the field, Dr. Robert DuPont has both served as the founding Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which funds about 80% of the world’s drug and addiction research, served as a White House Drug Chief for two presidents, and met with Pope Francis during the first narcotic workshop in the Vatican City. Read more about his experiences, insights, and the biggest discovery of his career, in this exclusive interview.

13 December 2021 | News

Mentor USA has had the honor of having Dr. Robert DuPont on our Board of Directors since the founding of the organization. During his year working within the field, he has come to know Mentor USA’s founder H.M. Queen Silvia and her passionate dedication to youth which inspired the creation of our organization. When we spoke with Dr. DuPont, he stressed the importance of prevention and the often-overlooked idea that youth substance use is not inevitable, which ties in with the entire mission of Mentor USA. Read the full interview below.

Dr. DuPont, you have such great experience working in this field and have dedicated most of your life to this cause, why is substance use prevention something you feel so passionate about?

The modern drug epidemic began in the late 1960s in the U.S. and in many nations around the world. It has grown and evolved dramatically since to become a major threat to global health. For example, drug overdose is now the leading cause of death in the US for people under the age of 50. Addiction hijacks the brain, changing the person with a substance use disorder. The tragedies of addiction are both widespread and uniquely personal. As a psychiatrist, I am amazed by the power of addiction which has been rightly called a “cunning, baffling, and powerful” disease.

What are some of the most important findings or insights that you have discovered during your many years of working within this field?

The biggest discovery of my career is the miracle of recovery – the emancipation from the Chemical Slavery of drug addiction. There are an estimated 23 million Americans now in recovery from addiction. They are my heroes. They are the “evidence” that recovery is possible and the fact that there are many paths to reaching long-term recovery. When people talk about “evidence-based” policies and programs, I often emphasize the compelling “evidence” from the individuals in recovery. Most of us know people, in our families, friends and associates, who are in recovery. I urge everyone to identify people in recovery. Ask them what their lives were like when they were using drugs, what happened to get them to want to stop their substance use, and what their lives are like now in recovery. Those stories are educational and inspiring – all 23 million of them.

I have come to know Queen Silvia and Her Majesty’s passionate dedication to youth. These deep Swedish roots of Mentor USA provide an inspiration both in the United States and around the world.

Dr. Robert DuPont, M.D.

You have been on Mentor USA’s Board of Directors for a long time and a big supporter of the organization. What made you want to take on this role and what is it that makes Mentor’s mission meaningful to you? 

I have been proudly on the Board of Mentor USA from the moment it was founded. Mentor is unique in many ways but one of the most important ways is its Swedish roots. When Sweden confronted the drug epidemic in the late 1960s, Nils Bejerot was a psychiatrist working with the Stockholm police. He saw the devastation of intravenous use of methamphetamine and heroin and the hold that these drugs had on drug users. Dr. Bejerot saw that medicalizing drug use and tolerating continued drug use perpetuated and deepened their addiction. He also saw that requiring individuals to stop their drug use, including through leverage provided by the law, helped these individuals recover. Thus, was born the Swedish drug policy of active discouragement of drug use including both areas of health policy and law enforcement working together to achieve goals neither could alone. Mentor USA’s sponsorship by Queen Silvia is inspiring to me. I have come to know Queen Silvia and Her Majesty’s passionate dedication to youth. These deep Swedish roots of Mentor USA provide an inspiration both in the United States and around the world.

You are also the founding president of the Institute for Behavior and Health, Inc. who earlier this year released a data-informed, youth-driven prevention message called “One Choice for Health”. Can you tell us a bit more about this important initiative?

I worked for years in the US government as the White House Drug Czar for two presidents and as the Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) for five years under three Presidents. NIDA funds about 80% of the world’s drug and addiction research. When I left the government in 1978, with my wife Helen, I created the Institute for Behavior and Health, a non-profit think-tank that researches and promotes policies that both prevent addiction from starting and emancipate people from the powerful grip of addiction. I am proud of the work of IBH and grateful to have had this opportunity to extend the work I began in the government, not just in the US but also globally, through serving also on the Board of the Sweden-based organization World Federation Against Drugs (WFAD).

We know the developing brain is uniquely vulnerable to substance use and the earlier a young person starts to use, the greater the likelihood of having a subsequent problem.

Dr. Robert DuPont, M.D.

IBH has reframed the goal of youth substance use prevention as One Choice: no use of any alcohol, nicotine, marijuana, or other drugs under age 21 for reasons of health. We know the developing brain is uniquely vulnerable to substance use and the earlier a young person starts to use, the greater the likelihood of having a subsequent problem. Analyzing nationally representative youth substance use data, IBH has shown that for youth aged 12-17, all substance use is closely connected. Using any one substance – alcohol, nicotine, or marijuana – greatly increases the likelihood of using the other two and other illicit drugs. Conversely, not using any one substance greatly decreases the likelihood of using others. One Choice is a clear health standard analogous to other standards for youth health like using a seat belt, wearing a bicycle helmet, eating healthy foods, and exercising regularly.

In 2016, you participated in the first narcotics workshop hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (PAS) in the Vatican City. The meeting was led and inspired by Pope Francis and H.M. Queen Silvia of Sweden, could you share one of the highlights from this important workshop?

In 2016 Queen Silvia joined with Pope Francis to sponsor a two-day global summit on addiction. I am proud to have been part of the 5-person US delegation to that important meeting. My presentation can be viewed online. My 2018 book, Chemical Slavery: Understanding Addiction and Stopping the Drug Epidemic, is dedicated to my heroes, Queen Silvia and Pope Francis, because of my respect for their leadership in the effort to protect people from, and release them from, the grip of this modern slavery.

Dr. DuPont in the Vatican City
In 2016 Dr. DuPont participated in the first ever narcotics workshop in the Vatican, which was led and inspired by Pope Francis and H.M. Queen Silvia of Sweden.

What is one thing you wish everyone knew when it comes to youth substance use prevention?  

The most important and most powerful response to the threat of addiction is prevention, to stop this chemical slavery before it starts. I have spent my career helping emancipate people from addiction. I know how hard that is. It is far better, and more practical, to stop addiction before it starts. The one powerful and too-often overlooked idea in prevention is that youth substance use is not inevitable. Substance use disorder is a pediatric-onset disease, with 90% of all adults with an SUD having initiated their use before age 18. IBH has shown that for four decades, more American youth have been making One Choice of no substance use. The percentage of American high school seniors who have never in their lives used any alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana, or other drugs was 3% in 1982. In 2019, that figure reached 31%. The percentage of high school seniors who had not used any drug in the past month was 16% in 1982 and reached 59% in 2019. Those stunning numbers are very encouraging. Our job now is to help American youth continue to grow that percentage of youth making One Choice not to use any substances. That is what our shared work in prevention does, and I am proud to be part of Mentor USA.

Thank you, Dr. DuPont, for taking the time to speak with us and sharing some of your experience and very important insights on substance use prevention!

Learn more about Mentor USA’s Board of Directors here.