A New PATH-Parents for Addiction, Treatment and Healing
By: Simon Eddisbury
Drug users represent the overwhelming majority of the U.S. prison population. According to a recent report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, 85% of the countryâ€™s inmates have a serious history of drug abuse. But, is incarceration the key to reducing the number of offenses that these individuals commit? A group of mothers from San Diego believe that Americaâ€™s so-called â€œWar on Drugsâ€ is doing far more harm than good. I caught up with Gretchen Bergman, co-founder of A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment and Healing), to find out the motivation behind her call for drug users to be treated as if they are suffering from an illness rather than punished for their mistakes.
You advocate treatment as opposed to punishment for non-violent drug offenders. How would you respond to those that say people who break the law should be punished for doing so, regardless of how illogical that law might be?
I served as a state chairperson for Proposition 36 in California, an initiative that was passed by 61% of the voters in 2000, mandating treatment instead of incarceration for non-violent drug offenders.Â Since that time, approximately 36,000 people have received treatment annually, whereas the majority of them had never accessed treatment before. My son was in prison at that time for non-violent drug-related charges. Instead of receiving treatment behind bars, he learned how to walk the walk and talk the convict talk. This turned into a decade of recycling through the prison system at a tremendous cost to taxpayers, which was a waste of human potential and an excruciatingly painful journey for our family. People who break the law need to be held accountable, but punitive incarceration for drug abuse merely exacerbates the problem. Our money and resources are much better spent on treatment and rehabilitation services. If a person is able to find and sustain recovery, they have no need to break a drug law and they are in a position to give back to society. This is the philosophy of restorative justice.
Can you explain the thinking behind your â€œMoms United to End the War on Drugsâ€ Campaign?
Moms United is a growing movement of mothers and others who are speaking out to stop the violence, mass incarceration, and overdose deaths that are the result of current discriminatory drug policies. Most of us involved in the campaign have experienced the devastation of these pointless punitive policies in our own families. We are fed up with the loss of lives and liberties caused by the failed war on drugs and we are demanding a therapeutic and public health orientated approach to dealing with drug problems. Because it is estimated that one in four families is dealing directly with an addictive illness, more and more parents are realizing that our children are at the forefront of the war on drugs and that prohibitionist drug policies can be more damaging than the drugs themselves. Therefore, we believe that decriminalization and regulation is a more sensible strategy.
Do you think the AmericanÂ Government has repeated the mistakes that it made during the prohibition era?
This is what is so poignant about our Moms United movement. It has been almost four decades since the war on drugs was declared and we seem to have learned nothing from the failed prohibitionist policies of the past. The number of people incarcerated has increased tenfold, and drugs are cheaper, more potent and easier to get than ever. We are losing a whole population of young people to incarceration, overdose, and drug war violence, and yet the madness continues. Mothers played a big part in ending alcohol prohibition in the 1930s and we are leading the charge to end prohibition now, not because we like alcohol or drugs, but because we love our children. Prohibition has fuelled the illegal drug trade with drug cartels making 60% of their profits from marijuana alone. Doesnâ€™t this sound familiar when you look back at the organized crime and gangland violence of alcohol prohibition?
Do you think the legal status of cannabis has any effect upon its levels of usage?
There doesnâ€™t seem to be any relationship between the harshness of drug laws and drug use. If cannabis is legalized, there may be an increase in usage; however, marijuana use is already so widespread that at least we would be able to regulate it and affect some control, especially with teen use.
Do you think the law enforcement agenciesâ€™ tendency to lump everything from marijuana to heroin together under theÂ label of â€œdrugsâ€ could cause soft drug users to jump to harder substances?
No, but I believe that this tendency is very dangerous to society. To my knowledge, the gateway theory about marijuana has not been scientifically proven any more than alcohol or tobacco. I believe that the hypocrisy of a society that uses marijuana and arrests those who are from communities of color and poverty for using marijuana at phenomenally higher rates than whites, while at the same time using â€œreefer madnessâ€ reasoning with youth, complicates an already disastrously problematic situation.
What do you think the benefits of legalizing cannabis would be?
The biggest benefit would be for youth. If you ask any American teenager, they will tell you that the easiest drug for them to get is marijuana â€“ easier than alcohol or tobacco, which are controlled and regulated. Legalizing and regulating cannabis will make it harder for youth to obtain it. Currently, regulation is in the hands of drug dealers and drug cartels. It will also stop the criminalization of adults who use marijuana responsibly or people who are addicted and need help. It will begin to take some of the power and profit away from violent drug cartels. It will change the dynamics of the drug war to public health rather than criminal justice driven strategies.
You have also spoken out against prison expansion. Can you explain your reasons for this?
My journey as an advocate for therapeutic drug policies comes from my experience as a mother. Both of my sons have addictive illnesses. My older son spent a decade of his life in the criminal justice system for non-violent drug offenses and relapsed. I know first hand the devastation caused by both the disease and the mistreatment of it as a criminal issue. My son was arrested for marijuana possession in 1990, and since that time, marijuana arrests are up by 127% in California. One in 100 American adults is incarcerated. Prison expansion is fueled by drug arrests. This is big business and we are warehousing a generation of young adults behind bars. These are people who, with proper treatment, can achieve recovery and be contributing members of society. However, in these economic times and because of stigma, downright discrimination, and greed, treatment dollars are dwindling and disappearing altogether while prisons continue to expand and prison guards with moderate education and skills are earning better salaries than teachers. America has 5% of the worldâ€™s population and 25% of the worldâ€™s prison population. Are Americans really that much more evil than people in other countries? My motivation comes from personal experience and some level of outrage.
So, what you are saying is that the option ofÂ sending drug users to prison is being used as an alternative to trying to figure out how to actually cure them?
Yes. It has become all too easy to banish drug users to prison, as there is such confusion about the true nature of the disease and because there is such a profit motive on the part of the prison industrial complex.
So, what you are saying is that the prison system is a multi-million dollar industry that encourages the use of incarceration over rehabilitation?
Absolutely! Look at the power of the prison guards union in California. Big money equals political power. Unfortunately, we spend more money on prison than we do on education. Treatment has been proven to save money while the results of incarceration are increasing recidivism rates, mass incarceration and wasted dollars. Sadly, prison spending rises while addiction treatment is gutted.
You describe addiction as an illness; do you think it should be viewed this way rather than being seen as a deliberate act of lawbreaking, which is how the authorities appear to treat it?
Addiction is a chronic relapsing disorder in the same scientific category as diabetes and hypertension, and it should be handled as a health problem. People with addictive illnesses should not be stigmatized as bad people doing bad things, but as ill people who need treatment services in order to manage their disease. We simply cannot punish our way out of what is essentially a public health problem.
What has the reaction to your campaign been like so far?
It has been very positive. A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment & Healing) began almost 12 years ago and, since that time, we have seen a major change in the way people perceive drug addiction. Mothers, family members and individuals in recovery are tearing off the shackles of shame and speaking out. In doing so, we are reducing the barriers to recovery. The healthcare community is supportive and we have created partnerships with student groups, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, clergy and unions. Of course, there is still much resistance within the criminal justice system, as punitive strategies justify their existence, magnify their authority, and benefit them financially.
The word â€œcourageousâ€ has been used to describe A New PATH in several of the news articles that I have read; do you think the stigma placed upon criticizing the U.S. drug policies is preventing other likeminded individuals from registering their support for your cause?
I believe that people can be confused and dissuaded from actively supporting our mission through the use of fear tactics from federal and local governments, legislators and law enforcement. But, more and more people believe in our cause because they are experiencing drug policy harms personally, so they are having the courage to reject the stigma and work to change policies that must be changed for the sake of our children and a healthier society.
What would you say is the most effective technique for aiding a drug addict towards recovery?
I believe that it takes a community to help a person struggling with an addictive illness to find their way out of the nightmare. Addiction is a baffling disease of the mind, body and spirit, and it affects the entire family and society in general. Harm reduction techniques can engage the individual in treatment and keep them alive until the process of recovery happens. In a perfect world, parents, teachers, law enforcement and healthcare professionals would work together to engage an individual in treatment. PATH believes that treatment for addictive illnesses should be a basic human right.
Finally, how can people get involved with A New PATH, and what can be done to support your cause?
Please join PATHâ€™s Moms United to End the War on Drugs Campaign by contacting us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more about our mission at www.anewpathsite.org. Join the Moms United campaign on Facebook and, most importantly, speak out for therapeutic and health orientated strategies whenever and wherever you can. There is power in numbers, so add your story and your voice to ours in order to create a massive collaborative effort for positive change.