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Originally published April 2, 2013 at 4:51 PM | Page modified April 2, 2013 at 4:51 PM

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Op-ed: Mark Mullan has a treatable disease: addiction

The consequences of Mark Mullan’s actions are heartbreaking — the deaths of two people and severe injuries to two others. But his disease, alcoholism, puts him in the company of millions of Americans and is treatable, writes guest columnist David Coffey.

Special to The Times

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THE tragic death of two people and the hospitalization of an infant and his mother after being struck by an allegedly intoxicated driver, Mark Mullan, has stunned our community.

If found guilty, Mullan could face 15 to 19.5 years in prison, according to news reports. Senior Deputy Prosecutor Amy Freedheim wrote, according to a Seattle Times article, “... his contempt and indifference to the public by repeatedly driving impaired and failing to equip his vehicle with an (interlock device) cannot be blamed on any disease except selfishness.”

To be clear, selfishness is not a disease, alcoholism is. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders identifies alcohol dependence as a disease. If it is left untreated, addiction is a terminal disease. Chemical dependency is a lifelong health issue that must be managed, or it will kill the person.

As this case demonstrates, it also has devastating consequences for others. Mullan’s addiction and his actions are responsible for the death of two grandparents and the severe injury of a new mother and her child.

Sadly, Mullan is not alone in his struggle with addiction. According to the National Center on Addiction and Drug Abuse at Columbia University, one in four Americans will have an alcohol or other drug problem at some point in their lives, and 40.3 million people in the U.S., 16 percent of the population ages 12 and over, meet the medical criteria for addiction.

Seattle’s former police chief Gil Kerlikowske, now director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, cites drug abuse as our No. 1 health problem, costing our nation an estimated $467 billion annually.

The numbers can be overwhelming. The profound despair, the loss of Dennis and Judy Schulte and the injuries to Karina Ulriksen-Schulte and her baby Elias, cannot be measured in dollars and cents.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Addiction is a treatable disease. People who are addicted can conquer their addiction. There is hope. There is help.

We know this firsthand through journeying with people every day at Recovery Café who have accomplished this. This includes people who have suffered horrific abuse as children, those who have gone to treatment multiple times (some more than 10 times), and many who have been arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Today they are drug- and alcohol-free, and helping other people stay clean and sober. If you or someone you care about is struggling, there are many resources available. Twelve-Step meetings, including Alcoholics Anonymous, have helped thousands reclaim their lives.

You can access information about more than 1,300 local meetings 24 hours a day at 206-587-2838. The Washington Recovery Help Line is an excellent anonymous and confidential source for help at 866-789-1511.

We are blessed in King County with forward-thinking county administrators and service providers who have created systems and resources to address this critical issue, including the strategic framework to create a comprehensive recovery-oriented system of care in our community. The Affordable Care Act, if adopted by Washington state, would fund treatment, allowing tens of thousands of people to access this vital resource.

Every day we are moving closer to more effective evidence-based practices to prevent and treat addiction.

Mullan is clearly very sick and the consequences of his disastrous decision-making are heartbreaking. There is no question that he should be held responsible to the full extent of our judicial system parameters for his actions.

Regardless of how any prosecutor describes him, he is a person for whom there is hope. We know there is a light at the end of the tunnel for addicts. With the right help, people can get better.

It is our fervent hope that as a community, we will use this pain as a catalyst to help the thousands of our brothers and sisters, children and parents struggling with this disease to transform their lives and to prevent further tragedies.

David Coffey is the executive director of Recovery Café in Seattle.

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