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The Crucial Role of Mothers in Reforming Drug Policy

Mothers in the UK, US, Canada, and beyond are advocating for drug policy reform; for many, their advocacy follows the death or incarceration of their child as a result of the drug war.

In Canada, a group of mothers – Leslie McBain, Petra Schulz and Lorna Thomas – developed a bond after each one of them lost a son because of the lack of public health support for people who use drugs. Two of the young men died of opioid overdoses, while one took his own life while struggling with cocaine use and mental health issues. The three mothers established an organisation, Moms Stop the Harm, which advocates for various harm reduction measures, including increased access to naloxone (a medication which reverses opioid overdoses), and “Good Samaritan” laws which legally protect individuals from prosecution if they call emergency services in the case of a drug overdose.

Marie Agioritis, a board member of Moms Stop the Harm who joined the group following the death of her son in 2015, said that “there was an instant connection. All of these like-minded women wanting to inspire change. It’s this web of women connecting with broken hearts.”

Similar movements have also been formed south of the border – in the US. Moms United to End the War on Drugs have staged an online campaign – Empty Chair at the Holiday Table – at Thanksgiving or Christmas annually since 2012. The campaign involves people uploading photos that highlight how their families are torn apart “due to a loved one’s incarceration; an accidental overdose; their being harmed or killed by drug war violence; or their being lost on the streets due to drug problems”, according to a recent press release.

The two groups have also joined forces to spread awareness about the importance of harm reduction measures with the #ListenToMom campaign. This endeavour supports the training of health care providers in evidence-based dependency care, highlights the need for providing education about safer drug use, and ultimately rejects the prevalent and often-harmful “tough-love” approach often directed towards people who use drugs by their families.

Similarly, in the UK, many mothers and other family members have come together in the fight for evidence-based, person-centred drug policy reform due to the effect of prohibitionist laws on their families.

The UK-based organisation Anyone’s Child is an international network of families who are campaigning for an end to the criminalisation of drug use, and often speak in favour of the legal control and regulation of drugs. One of the group’s UK members, Anne-Marie Cockburn, lost her daughter to an accidental MDMA overdose in 2013. Ever since this tragedy, she has campaigned tirelessly for an end to criminalisation, and in support of legal regulation:

“I’ve said that ‘Martha wanted to get high, she didn’t want to die’. All parents would prefer one of those options to the other. And while no one wants drugs being sold to children, if Martha had got hold of legally regulated drugs meant for adults, labelled with health warnings and dosage instructions, she would not have gone on to take 5-10 times the safe dose.”

Although these groups of mothers – and other family members – are not huge in their numbers, their stories are important for changing the narrative on drug use, and help change public attitudes towards drug policy. It is crucial for policymakers to hear their stories, and for fellow campaigners to elevate and amplify the voices of some of the people most devastated by the failures of the global drug war.

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