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Sobriety a constant challenge for Barry

For 25 years, Marion Barry has battled addictions to drugs, alcohol and women even as he repeatedly sought and won election to public office. Now Barry faces the possibility of another jail term and the potential loss of the political prominence he fought hard to regain.
Former Washington Mayor Marion Barry, shown in a 2002 file photo, has battled addictions to drugs, alcohol and women even as he repeatedly sought and won election to public office.Rogelio Solis / AP file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Late one night in 1996, suspicious that Marion Barry was using drugs again, boxing promoter Rock Newman sat him down and told him that he should resign as D.C. mayor and focus on beating his addiction. Newman said Barry cried in his arms.

He remembers Barry telling him: "I love you, man. I know I betrayed your friendship." Barry agreed to leave town for a while and take a second stab at treatment. But he wouldn't give up politics. "He felt if he wasn't the mayor, he wasn't nothing," Newman said.

Newman is out of Barry's life now; he dropped away after questioning the sincerity of Barry's efforts to stay sober and clean during his fourth and final term as mayor. A few years later, Barry's wife, Cora, left him, too, after he derailed a comeback council campaign by getting caught with a $5 rock of crack cocaine in his car. By 2004, when Barry won the Ward 8 council seat, many of his old friends had abandoned him.

Yet another slip
For 25 years, Barry has, by his own admission, battled addictions to drugs, alcohol and women even as he repeatedly sought and won election to public office. He found relief in New Age healing and spiritual guidance as well as medical treatment. But whatever strength he drew from those sources apparently didn't last. In November, a court-ordered urine test came up positive for cocaine, the drug that pulled his life apart and sent him to prison.

Now, Barry faces the possibility of another jail term and the potential loss of the political prominence he fought hard to regain. Some longtime friends doubt that he was ever fully committed to his own sobriety. However he came to use cocaine at age 69, Barry is not unique. More than 50,000 people over age 50 sought treatment for illegal drugs in 2002, the leading edge of a trend that is expected to worsen as the Woodstock generation ages.

Other men might be humiliated by revelations of drug use, especially if they had, like Barry, traded publicly on a record of recovery and redemption. Last week, Barry called a news conference. He emerged defiant from Howard University Hospital, where he was treated for diabetes and hypertension, and chastised the reporters who had gathered in the rain.

"I don't wish these things on me. I wish I didn't have them," he said of his illnesses. "So I wish y'all would stop sensationalizing the human frailties of human beings."

Weathering the storm
Barry refused to discuss the drug test, saying, "I don't want to talk about that." His health is good, he said; his spirits are "high and great." Barry pleaded guilty in October to two misdemeanor charges of failing to pay federal income taxes, and the drug test was part of a routine screening process for defendants awaiting sentencing. Sources said Barry has entered a private treatment program in hopes of persuading a judge to grant him probation.

Yesterday, Barry asked a Washington Post reporter to meet him at Temple of Praise in the Washington Highlands neighborhood in Southeast, where he was attending services. In an interview at the church, he said he is trusting in God to help him weather "a storm."

"I think all of my life and all of everybody's life we have had struggles," he said. "You can act like the storm doesn't exist, you can go through it or you can go above it. I have chosen to ride above the storm, and God will carry me over to the other side."

Barry again would not talk about the drug test, saying that "for legal reasons, I can't discuss my own situation at this time." He said he is attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings two or three times a week. "When we talk about recovery, 90 percent of the people lapse one or more times," he said. "It is the nature of the disease."

Darryl Colbert, who has served as Barry's sponsor in recovery for more than a decade, said Barry has called him almost every day since failing the test.

"He does what a person that wants to stay clean does: He talks to me," Colbert said.

Did Barry ever stop using drugs? If so, what happened? It's impossible to know.

Colbert said Barry probably started feeling good again. "When you've been off a mood-changing chemical for a while, your health comes back, your skin color comes back, you feel healthy, and your body and your mind tell you that you're not that bad. You're okay."

The mirage of invincibility
In January, Barry returned to city hall, the backdrop for his days as power broker and wheeler-dealer, when he sometimes stayed out all night, drinking cognac and chasing women. Experts on addiction say the situation could trigger a desire for drugs along with feelings of invincibility.

"People start thinking, 'I'm different. I can still do it. Look, I'm mayor. I can get elected to the city council. I can control my use,' " said Frederic Blow, a psychiatry professor at the University of Michigan. "You might start using a little bit here, a little bit there. And then it gets out of control."

Blow studies substance abuse among older adults, who are seeking help for drug addiction in growing numbers. In 1992, fewer than 3,000 people over age 50 sought treatment for cocaine, for example; by 2002, that number had swelled to nearly 13,000, according to a survey by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

In part, the numbers reflect a larger elderly population. But statisticians say they also signal changes in the elderly population, as baby boomers who experimented with illicit drugs in their youth return to those drugs to relieve the boredom and depression of retirement and old age. The oldest baby boomers are turning 60 this year; Barry will be 70 in March.

Cocaine can be more dangerous at 69 than at 29. It hits harder, its effects last longer and it can aggravate other chronic conditions, including diabetes and high blood pressure. Anytime Barry uses the drug, one health specialist said, he is risking a heart attack.

The good news is that older addicts who seek help tend to do well, Blow said. "Many people say they really want to work on recovery again because they don't want to die an addict."

Confidants remain cautious
Three of the people most familiar with Barry's recovery -- his wife, Cora Masters Barry, and his onetime spiritual advisers the Rev. Willie F. Wilson and the Rev. Barbara Williams-Skinner -- declined to be interviewed for this story. Several other friends also declined to talk about Barry publicly, saying they were too disheartened by the news.

Newman, who once ranked among his closest confidants, is not optimistic about Barry's commitment to recovery. In a telephone interview from his home in Las Vegas, Newman described Barry as brilliant but undisciplined and "extremely spoiled," a thrill-seeker with "an incredible sense of entitlement" who revels in outwitting those around him.

"There's always a fine line between genius and self-destructive insanity. Marion has often walked that high wire," he said. "I'm absolutely convinced, after being close-up and personal . . . that part of the continuing allure and fascination [of drugs] for him has been the cat-and-mouse game."

D.C. police were first tipped off to Barry's alleged cocaine use in 1981. Their suspicions were confirmed in January 1990, when the FBI filmed the mayor smoking a crack pipe and fondling a former model named Rasheeda Moore in the Vista Hotel (now known as the Wyndham Hotel).

Four days later, Barry entered drug rehab for the first time, checking into the Hanley-Hazelden Center in West Palm Beach, Fla. He continued to serve as mayor, however, and conduct city business, and he complained that a media stakeout was violating his privacy. He moved to a more secluded South Carolina facility, where he stayed until March 13, his longest publicly acknowledged period of residential drug treatment.

A short-lived redemption
Barry was sentenced to six months in prison for cocaine possession, a misdemeanor. He was released in April 1992 and immediately started running for the D.C. council. Two years later, he waged a successful campaign for mayor on a platform of personal and political redemption.

His first year back in the mayor's office was a disaster: The city was insolvent. A congressionally-appointed control board took over. And Barry found out he had prostate cancer. Meanwhile, "Barry started being seen at places that concerned his supporters," Newman said.

Barry denied using drugs, but Newman and others didn't believe him. Newman told Barry that he would publicly call for his resignation unless he sought help.

In April 1996, Barry announced that his behavior was showing "the telltale signs of spiritual relapse and physical exhaustion" and left for private retreats in rural Maryland and St. Louis.

Newman found Barry's comments less than candid, and he told reporters at the time that Barry had not halted "the maddening process toward relapse and personal destruction." When Barry returned from St. Louis, Newman told Cora Masters Barry that he could no longer act as an ally.

"Part of what angered me was that kind of perpetual con," Newman said. "You couldn't have personal integrity and stay on that train. This is a train wreck."

Many supporters feel betrayed
Barry finally left the mayor's office in 1999. He stayed mostly in the background, working as a consultant, until 2004, when he decided to challenge Ward 8 council member Sandy Allen. Barry looked gaunt and frail -- his complexion was ashen -- and rumors of drug use quickly resurfaced. Barry said doctors had him on the wrong diabetes medication. Still, longtime supporters shied away, including Wilson, who endorsed Allen.

"People who had supported him in the past just weren't there. He couldn't find a treasurer," said Dion Jordan, who served briefly as Barry's campaign manager. "I was like 'Wow -- Where are the people?' " Radio talk show host Joe Madison was one of the few prominent figures at Barry's kickoff. Madison said that he thought Barry was the best candidate that that Barry had assured him his drug days were behind him.

Last week, when Madison heard that Barry had tested positive for cocaine, he said he felt as though he'd "been kicked in the stomach."

Some people are ready to rally around Barry and blame his latest troubles on the criminal justice system. As Barry left the hospital last week and climbed into an aide's Jaguar, Howard Jackson, a self-described ex-pimp, was among a small group of admirers whooping and hollering.

"He didn't fail that drug test. They planted it on him," he insisted.

Callers to Madison's radio show have expressed similar support for Barry. "We have to continue loving Marion Barry," one said.

But Madison is not so sure. "We might be loving him to death," he said.

Staff writer Hamil R. Harris and researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.