American Society of Addiciton Medicine
Apr 1, 2022 Reporting from Rockville, MD
Dr. Rawson to Receive ASAM’s Presidential Award
Apr 1, 2022
When Richard A. Rawson, PhD, started treating people with addiction nearly 50 years ago, there was really only one reason why he chose to do so: he needed a job.

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American Society of Addictin Medicine


Dr. Rawson to Receive ASAM’s Presidential Award

When Richard A. Rawson, PhD, started treating people with addiction nearly 50 years ago, there was really only one reason why he chose to do so: he needed a job.

After he received his PhD in experimental psychology from the University of Vermont in 1974, an opportunity became available at a University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) clinic to do grant-supported work with Bob Liberman, MD, involving the testing of naltrexone and behavior therapy for the treatment of opioid addiction. 

“So, in September 1974, I moved to California with my family and started to learn about the field of addiction,” said Dr. Rawson, Research Professor in the Vermont Center for Behavior and Health and Professor Emeritus in the UCLA Department of Psychiatry. “I had no career plan at the time. I don't think I had ever met anyone who had opioid use disorder (OUD). It had not been part of my training nor a long-term career aspiration.”

When he started treating individuals’ addiction involving heroin, Dr. Rawson knew nothing about those who struggled with the disease. “My first ‘clinical training’ experience was to visit a therapeutic community (TC) located at a state hospital. This TC used the Synanon game, shaved heads, people wearing self-deprecating signs and had a serious cult-like quality. I was horrified.  I nearly got back in my car and went back to Vermont.”

 “The literature about people with addiction was pretty minimal in 1974,” he recalled. “What was there basically suggested that people who were addicted to heroin were mentally unsound. They were bad characters and their addiction was part of their pathology along with their criminality. They were people who were not like the rest of us.”

The clinic where Dr. Rawson worked was a UCLA satellite office in Oxnard, California. At the time, the city was experiencing a high degree of heroin use among its population. The more Dr. Rawson spent time with people struggling with addiction and hearing their stories, the more he realized the people seeking treatment at the clinic genuinely wanted help and didn’t understand why they did the things they did. And they were people who wanted to have good lives, have healthy families, avoid jail and prison. But their compulsion to use opioids repeatedly ruined their efforts to change their lives.

“We treated about a hundred patients with naltrexone or behavioral treatment with mixed results,” he said. “But the project changed my life. I really enjoyed working with this population.  I was optimistic that with effective treatments many of these folks could live the good lives that they hoped for. We just needed better treatments. I never really looked into any other career after that.”

In the early 1980s, Dr. Rawson started speaking about naltrexone and other treatments for addiction and conducting workshops during meetings conducted by the California Society of Addiction Medicine (CSAM) and eventually ASAM.

Since then, he’s accomplished much in in the field of addiction medicine.

He is an investigator and implementer of behavioral treatment models and a teacher of international renown. He has overseen clinical trials on pharmacological and psychosocial addiction treatments, with an emphasis on treating individuals with cocaine, methamphetamine, amphetamine and opioid use disorders. Examples of his work include being principal investigator for NIDA grants on aerobic exercise and screening and brief intervention in a mental health setting; a Fogarty training grant between UCLA and Cairo University, Egypt; and the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime TREATNET program, a global network of addiction training centers.

He’s also served as principal investigator of the SAMHSA/PEPFAR: Cooperative Agreement for Workforce Development in Vietnam: HIV-Addiction Technology Transfer Center and recently completed the SAMHSA/Department of State: Iraq Drug Demand Reduction Initiative. Dr. Rawson is currently working on grants addressing Assessment and Buprenorphine Initiation in the Emergency Department in three University of Vermont Hospitals and a HRSA-funded, Center on Rural Addiction at the University of Vermont.

He has led addiction research and training projects for the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the Drosos Foundation, and the US State Department, exporting science-based knowledge to many regions and nations. In addition to Egypt, Iraq, and Vietnam, other nations with whom Dr. Rawson has worked through Federal and private grants include, but are not limited to, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, South Africa, Israel, and Palestine.

Dr. Rawson has published 11 books, 42 book chapters, and over 250 peer-reviewed articles; he thinks the number of workshops, paper presentations, and training sessions he has conducted likely numbers in the many thousands. In brief, he has reached the highest tiers of success as an addiction clinician-investigator-educator who now brings that experience and wisdom to bear on improving public, international policy in the management of patients with SUD.

Currently, Dr. Rawson is advising the State of California on the first statewide effort approved by CMS to implement contingency management as a mainstream treatment for people with stimulant use disorder, particularly cocaine and methamphetamine use disorder. “It will be a huge effort to see if we can reduce overdose death among people who use stimulants, engage them in treatment, help them get into recovery, and see if contingency management, which has been repeatedly shown in research trials to be effective, can actually move into the real-world treatment system and yield positive outcomes,” he said.

At this year’s Annual Conference, ASAM President William F. Haning presented Dr. Rawson with ASAM’s Presidential Award. The award honors an individual for outstanding dedication and service in addressing addiction issues or promoting education, training, or awareness of the specialty of addiction medicine.

“I'm very grateful, honored and surprised,” Dr. Rawson said. “It's a major honor for me. I thank Dr. Haning, the other ASAM leaders and the membership of ASAM. I am very much indebted to folks at ASAM for allowing me to participate with them and to provide some contributions to the field of addiction medicine.”

Looking forward, Dr. Rawson said that this is a challenging time for the field of addiction medicine. Overdose deaths are at an all-time high. He encourages other psychologists to enter the field since there is a tremendous need for bright young researchers, teachers, and clinicians.

“It's a field where the clinical population is incredibly rewarding to treat,” he said. “Many patients have been looking for help for many years and have been told that they’re criminals who belong in jail. For many, a clinician who can treat them with honesty, compassion and with knowledge, can help them change the trajectories of their lives.  We need to aggressively continue NIH research efforts and ensure that new knowledge is translated into our clinical treatment efforts.  We have come a long way since 1974, but we still have a lot more questions than we do answers.”