LOS ANGELES – Howard Josepher (pictured, left), founder and president of New York City-based drug treatment program Exponents, doesn't look like much of a revolutionary upon first glance. But listen to him speak, and one begins to get the sense that he's onto an idea that could completely transform the way Americans think about drug addiction and recovery.

“They say addicts can move mountains,” he told Raw Story in an exclusive interview. “Why? It's 'cause they're focused. I ask people who come to my program, 'How many times did you go to sleep at night with no money, no dope, yet the next day you found some way to get high?' Now, that's power.”

Josepher's program seeks to harness that power, the power of a focused mind, to motivate recovering addicts and even current users to begin walking the path toward sobriety and productivity. But he gets participants there much differently than most drug treatment programs.

Instead of emphasizing abstinence from drugs like most prison-run programs do, Exponents emphasizes safety, learning and community, providing incentives instead of looming punishment, and freedom of choice instead of restrictions.

“If you focus your mind on something positive, something that can really nurture you, even some vision, some dream, and you keep that focus – it's gonna happen. Or something good is going to happen. A lot of people who've been addicts have feelings of despair and hopelessness. Many suffer from depression. That shit can get you down. It can make you give up. But you've got to fight that.”

Exponents began as a research project in 1988, during the height of the AIDS epidemic. At that time, over 50 percent of people who were addicted to injection drugs were either HIV positive or living with full-blown AIDS. Josepher, himself a former addict and incarcerated person, decided he had to do something to help his community, so he and six other men who were just coming off prison sentences started a support group in the basement of a local church.

It was, in a sense, the very definition of direct action. They didn't bother protesting the government's counter-productive drug policies. They didn't organize petition drives to get someone else to address the problem. They just decided to do it themselves.

By offering basic social services, moral support and a sense of community – as opposed to forced coercion through the criminal justice system, and programs run by law enforcement that focus on promoting drug abstinence and what's wrong with the participants – Exponents has managed to become a powerful force for good.

“In the beginning, I was very insecure,” Josepher explained. “I wanted to be helpful, but I didn't know if I could. When you're dealing with drug addicted people, they've got other things on their minds. But you've got to use incentives. What will bring them in the door? All the programs say we'll give you a better life, we'll get you off drugs, but as good as that sounds, it's not enough.”

Incentives like food, a part-time job, or even a weekly stipend, he said, are enough to get addicts in the door. “What we did with our target population, in order to facilitate that investment, we created a short, brief intervention,” Josepher added. “We started a program that looks like a three credit college course. We meet three times a week for eight weeks, and once it's over they graduate. Graduation is a hallmark, it's a completion, it's important. Then that person coming out of prison can see the beginning, the middle and the end, and that's something that helps them make a commitment, whereas most other programs are open-ended.”

That sense of accomplishment is remarkably powerful, he explained. “The drug addicted population, they don't finish things... But that finish, when they know they've completed something, that builds self esteem.”

The idea is to focus not on what's wrong with drug users, but what's right with them – and build on that, instead of tearing them down.

“They know what you're doing is to just help them take better care of themselves," Josepher explaiend. "You're not preaching. You're not telling them they have to be clean. That's their choice. It's called client-centered. Where does that person want to go in life? Working from that approach, you've got a better shot at engaging and retaining people.”

Today, Exponents has seen over 9,600 addicts graduate from its program, earning numerous government and non-profit grants and breathless praise from elected officials.

“Exponents and its caring staff is a beacon of hope to those recovering from alcohol and chemical dependency as well as to those living with or in danger of contraction of HIV/AIDS,” Gov. David Patterson said of the program. “This incredible program is justifiably celebrated for its dedication to helping to bring the lives of those in need – regardless of their economic means – back on track. Without question, Exponents makes a daily, tangible impact on the quality of life in New York state.”

As the tide turns in public thinking about drug addiction and the drug war in general, Exponents should serve as an example of something that really works, among a litany of costly, many times ineffective programs run in through the jails.

“A lot of drug programs suck and they need to change,” Josepher concluded. “I think that our model, our approach, is another way. If you've got more ways to be helpful, more ways to help people in recovery, then that's a good thing.”

To read more about Exponents, visit their website.

Photo: Flickr user SlapBcn.