It was 4:45 am on March 13, 2016. My phone was ringing over and over, and there was loud banging. I woke up confused and terrified. My mother was hammering at my front door.  I remember the look on her face and hearing words that I could not even process or understand. She was telling me that my 19-year-old daughter was dead of a drug overdose.

    After some moments of confusion and complete despair and grief, my mind shifted. I found myself instead experiencing rage, bitter anger and fury. Rather than listen to this news, I attacked it and fought it. I screamed at my mother, God, the air, who-the-fuck-ever I could scream at.

    In this moment, I wanted the person who gave my daughter the drugs to pay. Her friends, her boyfriend, I did not care. I wanted to hurt this person, punish them.

    I felt these things despite having experiences that most mothers who go through this do not have. As a person who uses drugs, I have lived the other side of this. I know that no one gave my daughter drugs wanting her to die, or even to have anything bad happen to her. The person who gave her the drugs—heroin, contaminated most likely with fentanyl—is not responsible for her death. They are not responsible for the poisoning of the US drug supply with fentanyl, nor for the drug policies which make people use alone, secretly and full of shame. US governments and the culture of prohibition can take credit for all of that.

    I am sharing this because I now know from experience how easy it is to misdirect blame.

    In the agonizing days that followed, I watched as my daughter’s entire community in Greensboro, North Carolina—friends from high school and church, friends who had struggled in all the ways she had—came together with love. Utterly distraught, we all moved forward together into a future without my daughter.

    I am sharing this because I now know from experience how easy it is to misdirect blame. Even though I have spent my life fighting against bad drug laws, and know in my heart what the problem truly is, I found myself right there. I found myself blaming the wrong people. It was as if the grief and pain were too much to bear, but anger? Well, that felt better. It felt more powerful.

    Too many people know the pain I am talking about all too well, and have also experienced that same anger. And politicians and prosecutors—rather than accepting responsibility for the consequences of their own failed policies—are increasingly exploiting this pain and anguish to make scapegoats of supposed “drug dealers” through drug-induced homicide laws.

    These powerful individuals are leveraging the debilitating powerlessness of people like myself, a parent who has lost a child to overdose, to justify charging individuals with murder or manslaughter. They mislead society into believing this response is necessary and appropriate, so our loved ones do not die in vain. They are the ones who truly deserve the anger of people like me.

    The outcome in drug-induced homicide cases is two lives lost instead of oneand a false appearance of retribution, justice and revenge.

    Drug-induced homicide laws were designed to target major cartel dealers, yet they are overwhelmingly used to prosecute friends and loved ones of an individual who has lost their life due to an overdose. Those impacted most by drug-induced homicide laws also include people selling on a small scale to support their own use. All too often, these individuals have few options for procuring a sustainable income due to their criminal records—thanks, once again, to the drug war—which effectively exclude them from the mainstream economy.

    The outcome in drug-induced homicide cases is two lives lost instead of oneand a false appearance of retribution, justice and revenge.

    It’s time to do something about this. #Reframetheblame “from people to policy,” is a campaign launched by Urban Survivors Union, the national drug user union where I serve as executive director. It’s an amazing opportunity for people who use drugs and those who stand in solidarity with them to sign what we call a Do Not Prosecute Directive.

    These directives are designed in the tradition of a Do Not Resuscitate order. We sign them as a way of taking control of our lives, or at the very least, our deaths. We sign them as a powerful way to declare that we don’t want our lives used as propaganda to continue a drug war that has brought nothing but pain.  

    The Do Not Prosecute Directive states:  

    “I do not want to be part of your bloody drug war that has incarcerated and killed millions. If I die of an untimely accidental overdose I ask that you do not use my accidental overdose as a tool of your drug war  to blame and charge others with murder or homicide. If anyone is responsible for my deadly overdose it is drug prohibition and drug policy, and our government’s insistence that we double down on a racist and classist drug war policy that has proven ineffective over and over again.”

    On August 31 this year, to coincide with International Overdose Awareness Day, more than 4,000 people from all around the country signed this declaration. But it didn’t end there. You can sign a Do Not Prosecute Directive here to show that if the worst happens to you, you do not want people around you to be blamed and persecuted.

    The criminalization of drug possession and sale results in the jailing of millions. It leaves us at the mercy of a multi-billion dollar illicit market that conducts no checks and incentivizes production and sale of more potent substances.

    A public health-centered approach requires an entirely different set of policies. Naloxone access and distribution, Good Samaritan laws, fentanyl test strips, drug-checking stations, treatment on demand and medication-assisted treatment (MAT) have all been shown to be effective in reducing overdose death among people who use drugs.

    I am particularly amazed at how little we are doing to make MAT accessible to anyone and everyone who needs it. Methadone and buprenorphine cut mortality rates by half or more for people with opioid addiction who use them long-termThe reason such vital information, accepted internationally at a scientific level, is not better known in the US is the same reason that drives drug-induced homicide laws: stigma against people who use drugs.

    Urban Survivors Union is asking folks to stand up to this stigma. Please talk to your family members and loved ones about overdose and drug-induced homicide laws, and #reframetheblame today. There is no substitute for honest conversation. Protect yourself and the people you love who use drugs. Unite with us as we demand that our voices be heard, both in life and in death.


    To support #Reframetheblame, you can sign a Do Not Prosecute Directive today. You can find more information about the campaign here.

    Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

    • Louise Vincent

      Louise is the executive director of Urban Survivors Union, a national drug user union. A harm reduction consultant and educator, she was the inaugural recipient of the Any Positive Change award established in honor of Dan Bigg at the 2018 National Harm Reduction Conference.

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