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White Parents Are Fighting Back Against the Drug War They Helped Create

In previous decades the mothers and fathers of addicts advocated for punishing addicts harshly, but a new generation of parent-activists has embraced a gentler approach.

For months, news outlets across America have been hyping the heroin "epidemic." It's now a white problem, the headlines scream, and consequently, the articles imply, we need a kinder, gentler approach.

If that sounds like a reductive (and maybe even racist) way to describe the situation, consider this passage from an October New York Times story:

"When the nation's long-running war against drugs was defined by the crack epidemic and based in poor, predominantly black urban areas, the public response was defined by zero tolerance and stiff prison sentences. But today's heroin crisis is different. While heroin use has climbed among all demographic groups, it has skyrocketed among whites; nearly 90 percent of those who tried heroin for the first time in the last decade were white.

"And the growing army of families of those lost to heroin—many of them in the suburbs and small towns—are now using their influence, anger and grief to cushion the country's approach to drugs, from altering the language around addiction to prodding government to treat it not as a crime, but as a disease."

It's not surprising that white families—who are generally more affluent and politically connected than minorities—would have a disproportionate impact on drug policies. But white families affected by drugs in the 70s and 80s were a major part of the conversation back then, too. The difference is, they were on the opposite side.

The earlier anti-drug " parents movement" began in 1976, in Atlanta, when a white mother, Marsha "Keith" Schuchard, caught her 13-year-old daughter smoking pot. She mobilized her neighbors and then the nation to crack down on a drug that she argued was damaging children's capacity to learn and acting as a "gateway" to "harder" substances.

This activism became part of a larger backlash against the permissiveness and counterculture of the 60s—one that would be embraced by conservatives and some liberals who thought the "let it all hang out" movement had gone too far. Tens of thousands of parents joined anti-drug groups, urged on by "Just Say No" first lady Nancy Reagan. Their sadness and rage were genuine, but they were also easy emotions for right-wing politicians to exploit.

Tough drug policies have long been tied to race: Drug warriors have used fears about Irish,Jewish, and German immigrants (Prohibition), Chinese railroad workers (opium), Mexicans (marijuana), or black people (cocaine, heroin, marijuana, you name it) to gain support for their prescribed crackdowns. By the time Schuchard began her work, drug scares had been elevated to an art by Republican operatives like Nixon aide John Ehrlichman. In 1992, Ehrlichman described these techniques to journalist Dan Baum:

"By getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."

This tactic helped win elections for the GOP, and resulted in increasingly harsh drug laws. In the 1970s, ten states had decriminalized marijuana possession and President Jimmy Carter even told Congress in 1977 that he favored revising federal law in the same way. But thanks in part to the parents' movement, in the 1980s it became hard to turn on the TV or open a newspaper without hearing about the horrors of crack—and nearly every image used to illustrate the issue demonized black people.

The movement was more than a simple Republican front, however. Fear of drugs resonated across the political spectrum. The issue's effectiveness at getting votes prompted Democrats to equal and even at times exceed their opponents in drug incarceration mania. And among the parents who organized in favor of the most extreme punishments were many whose children were actually addicted.

Tens of thousands of families—the majority of them white—sent their children to programs like Straight Incorporated, which epitomized the idea that rehab itself should be as brutal as possible.

Phyllis and David York, for example, were white suburbanites whose daughter became addicted to cocaine. Their 1982 bestseller, Toughlove, advocated harsh treatment as the only way to help addicts— especially if they were your own kids. The approach was endorsed by leading advice columnist Ann Landers and gave rise to support groups with thousands of members. The movement advocated making drug laws more severe and refusing to bail out children in trouble. Helping was demonized as "codependence" and "enabling."

Toughlove parents lionized punitive treatment across the board. Tens of thousands of families—the majority of them white—sent their children to programs like Straight Incorporated, which epitomized the idea that rehab itself should be as brutal as possible. These organizations used torturous tactics like depriving patients of food and sleep, isolation, attack therapy, beatings, and punitive restraints (some of which went on for so long that teens soiled themselves) in a deliberate attempt to break down teens' personalities, which was supposed to end their addictions. In reality, it's more likely to cause PTSD, which worsens addiction.

But when the enemy was drugs, nothing—not kidnapping and imprisonment, not assault, not making girls wear clothes stained with feces and menstrual blood, not executing dealers or calling for casual users to be shot—was seen as taking it too far. And the parents' movement made every effort to keep white kids from being spared.In fact, since many of these teen programs were private, expensive, and not covered by insurance, the majority of children sent to them were actually white. (Today, at least 10,000 teenagers are held in such programs at any given time.)

We've spent over a trillion dollars; that's $1,000,000,000,000, a million million. Yet neither use rates or addiction rates have declined.

If white parents are advocating for gentler treatment of addicts as opposed to this sort of abuse, that's clearly significant progress. But why are they turning away from toughness now?

I can think of several reasons. For one, we've lived through at least three decades during which the only politically acceptable response to drug issues has been more of the same brutality. During this time, while various "epidemics" like crack and meth have risen and then fallen, no one has ever been able to honestly make the case that law enforcement–based approaches to fighting addiction have worked.

When the US first began measuring youth drug use in 1975, 55 percent of high school seniors reporting having tried an illegal drug (mainly weed), with a peak of 66 percent in 1981 and an all-time low of 41 percent in 1992. The latest figure is 49 percent. During that same period of time, spending on the drug war—which overwhelmingly focuses on law enforcement and incarceration—has risen exponentially. We've spent over a trillion dollars; that's $1,000,000,000,000, a million million. Yet neither use rates or addiction rates have declined; if anything, addiction has increased.

No one is more aware of this than the parents of people with addictions. Many if not most have tried tough love and harsh rehab and watched them fail, or even backfire—sometimes with fatal results. At the same time, data has been accumulating to show that the opposite approach, known as "harm reduction," can help.

Research now finds that a kind, gentle approach known as CRAFT Family Therapy doubles the success rate for loved ones trying to get addicted people into treatment, compared with the typical coercive TV-style intervention. Studies show that needle exchange and other harm reduction programs don't "enable" or extend problem drug use—in fact, Canada's safe injection rooms ultimately help 57 percent of their participants get treatment aimed at ending addiction.

But the harm-reduction program that I think has made the biggest difference is the growing use of, outside of medical treatment, of the opioid overdose antidote naloxone (a.k.a. Narcan). Since 1996, when Dan Bigg and the Chicago Recovery Alliance started providing naloxone to drug users and their loved ones, tens of thousands of people have been saved and many more have witnessed their Lazarus-like recoveries. The nontoxic and non-addictive drug, which does no harm if used in error, instantly revives people who have stopped breathing and taken on a deathly pallor.

Although Pulp Fiction notoriously misrepresented overdose reversal by suggesting that it required an adrenaline shot to the heart, Uma Thurman's sudden revival isn't far from the truth about how dramatically naloxone works when injected subcutaneously or applied as a nasal spray.

Hundreds of naloxone distribution programs now exist across the country; every day Google Alerts sends me dozens of items about how police departments, hospitals, drug treatment programs, and schools are using it to save lives. The federal government has made it a priority in efforts to stop overdose deaths.

Some reforms work slowly and invisibly, but naloxone saves lives in a visceral and immediately understandable way. When parents lose children who could have been saved if only they'd had it on hand, they get righteously furious. As several anguished mothers asked repeatedly at an FDA hearing on naloxone that I covered for TIME in 2012, "Why didn't I know about this when my child was still alive?"

No one in the world of crackdowns and tough talk has a good answer. Even those who worry that naloxone might encourage increased risk-taking admit that they would want it if their own loved ones were at risk.

Indeed, one of the main differences between today's parents' movement and that of the 80s is that many its leaders have already lost children. From Gary Mendell of Shatterproof to Denise Cullen of GRASP/Broken No More to Dianee Carden Glenn, Elaine Pawlowski, and some members of Families for Sensible Drug Policy and Moms United to End the War on Drugs, all have faced a child's overdose death.

As a mother, it was intuitive: Our goal was never to punish or coerce, it was to help him get well.
—Denise Cullen

This perspective brings with it a very different attitude. Since naloxone programs grew out of the world of harm reduction, the new parent activists have been exposed to the research on gentler drug policies—and many have analyzed their children's stories in light of the harm done by arrests, incarceration, and tough love, not just drugs. As I reported in VICE this summer, for example, Denise Cullen's son, Jeff, died in 2008, less than two days after being released from jail—a time during which overdose death is exponentially higher than normal.

"All the law enforcement stuff did was punish my son, shame him," Cullen told me, describing why she supports harm reduction. "As a mother, it was intuitive: Our goal was never to punish or coerce, it was to help him get well."

Elaine Pawlowski's son died of an overdose in 2012. The 29-year-old grad student did not call 911 for help, she has written, because he feared consequences related to the drug court program he was being forced to attend. "Harm reduction gives you the respect you need to go forward," she says, contrasting it with the guilt and stigma of the criminal justice system.

And Mary Kay Villaverde's 24-year-old son, who died in 2001, had repeatedly tried abstinence-based programs without success. None of them informed him about other options that have been proven to reduce the risk of overdose death by over 70 percent. "From what I have learned, I believe medication-assisted treatment would've helped him, along with alternatives offered now, emphasizing harm reduction," she says.

Pieties like "think of the children" are clichés, but the notion that drug policies could save—or doom—kids is undeniably powerful. Arguments based on statistics are rarely as persuasive as an army of grieving mothers and fathers, no matter what their merits. But these new parent activists stand as living proof of the failure of the drug war to protect kids—and the harm that it has wrought on real families. And the data is on their side.

With any luck—and with solidarity for everyone harmed by the drug war—these could be the voices that politicians will finally heed to make effective change.

Follow Maia Szalavitz on Twitter.