“No one brings casseroles when a child dies a stigmatized death,” says Denise Cullen, the mother of a 27-year-old son who lost his life to overdose and the founder of a support group, GRASP, for people grieving a drug-related death. “People keep their distance because they don’t know what to say.”
Every year, many families are devastated due to two parallel, preventable crises stemming from the War on Drugs: one of overdose, one of incarceration. In 2017, over 1.6 million people were arrested in the US due to draconian drug laws; in the same year, there were 72,000 fatal drug overdoses—many of which would have been prevented by policies allowing expanded access to harm reduction services.
The pain of all these missing people takes on a life beyond the individuals impacted. Families and communities face the emotional and social trauma produced by such needless harm. And with the emphasis on home and family during the holidays, a family member’s entanglement with the drug war can be particularly painful this time of year.
“I recall driving four hours to visit my son in prison for a past Thanksgiving,” says Julia Negron, a Florida mother whose son served several prison terms for drug possession, in a press release. “The processing time took so long that we never got that visit. He waited in his sally-port on the other side, while we waited at our assigned table for that precious few minutes with my son.”
Tragic anniversaries can also make the end of the year difficult. “Thanksgiving is in the month my son died of an overdose,” says Sarah Couper. “We give thanks for the 19 years of memories of our beautiful boy. There will always be an empty seat at our table.”
That image of an empty seat at a table set for a holiday dinner is the subject of an annual campaign to highlight the human impacts of the drug war. The advocacy organization Moms United to End the War on Drugs is encouraging people to share on social media photos of an empty chair with a picture of a lost or missing loved one, along with a sign stating one of the following reasons: “incarceration, accidental overdose, drug war violence, or stigma.”
Heroin-related death rates have more than quadrupled since 2010, and mass incarceration continues almost unabated. Incarceration also disproportionately targets communities of color, with black women incarcerated at a rate double that of white women, and 18-to-19-year-old black men almost 12 times more likely to be imprisoned than their white peers. As of March 2018, almost half a million people were locked up because of a drug-law violation.
Moms United is raising awareness of the community and familial impact of repressive policy and stigmatizing attitudes. Even as President Trump has launched a “public health” response to the overdose crisis, he has continued to express commitment to a punitive campaign for a “drug-free” world.
The imperative to end the failed drug war is for the sake of both individual lives and the communities to which they belong. If it continues, many others will suffer the heartbreaking, avoidable consequence of a seat remaining empty.
Photograph: Gretchen Bergman via Moms United to End the War on Drugs Facebook Group