Connection over Addiction

Apr 1, 2022 | Mental Health Law, The Mind Itself

Diving into the Mind
Today, John Witbeck chats with Brandee Izquierdo, the Executive Director of the SAFE Project.

What is the SAFE Project?  

The SAFE Project is a non-profit that was founded three years ago by Admiral James and Mary Winnefeld after their 19-year-old son passed away from an accidental opioid overdose. Brandee distinguishes the SAFE Project from other non-profits, as Admiral James and Mary truly understand that anyone can fall victim to addiction regardless of race and class. They formed four initiatives in the organization: SAFE campuses, SAFE communities, SAFE workplaces and SAFE veterans.

A Complex Issue  

Addiction, especially opioid addiction, is a complex issue with many different factors involved. That’s why SAFE project tackles all facets such as public awareness, full spectrum prevention, law enforcement and criminal justice, treatment and recovery and more. Brandee emphasizes the importance of taking into account all areas of addiction.

The Story before the Story of Addiction  

As a mother and someone in long-term recovery herself, Brandee discusses what it’s like to work in this world of drug addiction. She explains what led her to addition—a story of sexual trauma, violence, abuse, and incarceration. She wants to emphasize the importance of the story before the story of addiction and how people become addicted when trying to numb other feelings.


After ending up incarcerated, Brandee looked around the jail cell and realized this was not the life she wanted. She went into treatment as a way to be released from her sentence, but soon learned that addiction is a disease, not a moral failing. This epiphany led her to understand her situation better and get the support she finally needed.

Brandee also touches on how alcoholism is a difficult disease to battle because of its accessibility and normality in society between happy hours, liquor stores, parties, etc. What helped her in recovery is changing her perspective to: “I can drink but choose not to.” She also speaks to identifying the things she loves in life and chasing them down the way she did the high. For her, it was education.

Criminal Justice System  

Brandee discusses how the criminal justice system can aid people in addiction by having understanding and compassionate officers. Brandee wants to encourage a collaboration with law enforcement to better improve the system. She truly believes there is a middle ground and is educating herself and others on how law enforcement and recovery programs can work together. She talks about drug courts and collaboration as the focus of her dissertation, believing that that is the path to save a lot of lives. She also chats on the power of the drug court’s deflection and diversion program and how that can help provide people with much needed structure.

Looking Forward  

As Brandee finishes up her doctorate, she wants to focus on policy formation and reform, using her education as well as her experiences to inform others and humanize the topic. She emphasizes the importance of inclusive policy. She points to Covid as an example of how quickly policy can actually change when needed and with the addiction crisis, it’s very needed.

With anyone struggling with trauma, addiction or any other hardships, Brandee encourages you to look for connection. She believes that the opposite of addiction is connection, community and finding support.

Hosts & Guests

John Whitbeck

Brandee Izquierdo


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