Alan Marlatt, UW researcher respected worldwide, dies at 69
For years, the prevailing approach to confronting addiction in the U.S. could be summed up as "just say no." Abstinence was the only goal; addicts had to agree to quit drugs or booze entirely as a precondition for treatment. The pioneering work of Alan Marlatt, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, profoundly changed that attitude in recent decades. Dr. Marlatt died Monday at 69.
Seattle Times staff reporter
For years, the prevailing approach to confronting addiction in the U.S. could be summed up as "just say no." Abstinence was the only goal; addicts had to agree to quit drugs or booze entirely as a precondition for treatment.
The pioneering work of Alan Marlatt, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, profoundly changed that attitude in recent decades.
Dr. Marlatt advocated "harm reduction," an approach that meets addicts "where they are" instead of demanding immediate detox and abstinence. Counselors strive to reduce drug or alcohol consumption, for example, while minimizing public-health costs through programs such as needle exchanges.
It's a model Dr. Marlatt called "compassionate pragmatism instead of moralistic idealism." And research shows it works.
Dr. Marlatt, director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the UW, died Monday from complications of melanoma. He was 69.
An internationally respected researcher, Dr. Marlatt wrote or edited more than 20 books and hundreds of scientific journal articles, and received major awards for his contributions to the fields of alcoholism and substance abuse.
"He was a visionary and a luminary. He generated ideas that were ahead of their time in so many different ways," said Dennis Donovan, director of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute at the UW, one of the many researchers Dr. Marlatt mentored over his career.
While now widely accepted, some of Dr. Marlatt's ideas were considered heretical when he first started writing and talking about them decades ago, colleagues said.
For example, counselors once shunned discussion of relapses when talking with alcoholics, believing it would only encourage further drinking. Dr. Marlatt challenged that as unrealistic. His research showed it was more effective to acknowledge the likelihood of relapses and help patients cope with them.
"When I first heard him talk about that in the late 1970s, people got up and accused him of killing alcoholics," said Frederick Rotgers, president of the Society of Addiction Psychology.
Born in Vancouver, B.C., Dr. Marlatt was a Canadian and U.S. citizen. He received his bachelor's of psychology from the University of British Columbia in 1964 and his doctorate in clinical psychology from Indiana University in 1968. He joined the UW faculty in 1972.
A lover of travel who spent several sabbaticals overseas, Dr. Marlatt's work was influenced by the pragmatic policies many other countries take toward drug abuse, which he viewed as superior to the U.S.' moralistic approach.
"The shame that many people have about their addictions is just made worse by that kind of model and then they don't seek treatment," said Kitty Moore, Dr. Marlatt's wife. "He was battling the moral model his entire life."
Katie Witkiewitz, assistant professor of psychology at Washington State University, said Dr. Marlatt's great gift was combining scientific rigor with compassion. "He was very concerned about individual welfare, for both addicts and the people he worked with," she said.
That made Dr. Marlatt interested in the practical uses of his theories.
For example, he wondered whether harm-reduction approaches could have saved troubled Seattle rock star Kurt Cobain, who committed suicide in 1994.
In an op-ed for The Seattle Times in 2004, Dr. Marlatt noted that Cobain didn't want to give up heroin because he felt he needed it to cope with chronic stomach pain. Yet abstinence was the only choice offered to him during an intervention shortly before his death.
"Like many users, Cobain was not quite ready to give up his drug use as the first and only step to recovery," Dr. Marlatt wrote, suggesting that alternatives to abstinence should have been offered.
For similar reasons, Dr. Marlatt supported Seattle's controversial apartment building for the city's most troublesome street alcoholics. The 1811 Eastlake building, which opened in late 2005, provides a home to dozens of hard-core alcoholics, who are allowed to drink in their rooms.
Though that concept drew plenty of criticism, a 2009 study found it saved taxpayers $4 million a year. That's because the residents were drinking less and not winding up as often in the emergency room or detox.
In addition to his professional accomplishments, his family and friends recalled Dr. Marlatt's twinkling blue eyes, insatiable curiosity and love of throwing parties to watch the Oscars or presidential elections.
A news junkie, he loved to keep up on current events, religiously reading the newspaper and watching the Sunday morning political talk shows.
As a longtime Buddhist, Dr. Marlatt also studied meditation and "mindfulness" as tools for helping addicts control their cravings.
"He was a very spiritual man," said Kit Marlatt, Dr. Marlatt's son. "He just had so much inner glow."
Besides his wife and son, he is survived by daughter-in-law Ashley Rachel Marlatt; half-brother Robert Whitehead; stepdaughters Melanie Miller, Charlotte Miller and Iara Coltrim; and stepson Colin Maclay.
A memorial is being planned for some time in May.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or email@example.com
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