I have a million stories about my older brother, Billy, that exemplify the harms of the United States criminal justice system. I spent years trying to shepherd him through it, as a person who was dual-diagnosed with bipolar disorder and substance use disorder.
His arrests in the last several years of his life reflect how stigma and a system of punishment lead to detrimental public health outcomes. Billy had been a person in recovery for over 20 years until he lost his job—and, therefore, his health insurance. Losing access to his psychotropic medicines resulted in his returning to self-medicating with methamphetamine and heroin. This perpetuated a vicious cycle of contact with the police and the court system, rather than with the health care system. This ultimately contributed to his death.
My brother was a sensitive soul, a risk-taker and, by our society’s standard, a criminal. He struggled with spells of court-ordered abstinence. His convictions meant that he could not obtain work. Without my home to live in, he would have been on the streets. But towards the end of his life, after many ups and downs, he left my house, because I no longer knew how to help him and he was too ashamed. He sold drugs for a time to sustain himself.
Benjamin Mays once said, “Every man and woman is born into the world to do something unique and something distinctive and if he or she does not do it, it will never be done.”
Billy’s death was an inflection point, changing the trajectory of my life.
Before my brother died, he shared with me that he was born to teach my son about life. Billy took his struggles and showed my son how to live through pain and hardship with dignity, taught him the integral value of faith and hope in our daily existence. Watching my brother with my son taught me the same lessons.
I took the call before dawn on March 18, 2007. Billy had died of a polydrug overdose. His life, quite simply, made me determined to do whatever I could, whatever it took, to improve the conditions of life for people who use drugs.
Many of us in this movement are driven by the unacceptable experiences of our impacted loved ones. Billy’s death was an inflection point, changing the trajectory of my life. It led me from where I was then—a recently retired career police officer—to my current role as the executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of serving and retired police, prosecutors, judges and other criminal justice professionals who oppose the failed war on people who use drugs.
My journey has encompassed volunteering at a pop-up syringe program in California, and training people who use drugs and their families on take-home naloxone with the Solace Foundation. I’ve worked on international issues and those closer to home, including systemic racism and harmful policing practices, as well as the progress that we’ve made in the last 10 years. I believe that our drug policies should be grounded in science, compassion and human rights.
I try to apply those values to the reform efforts I see and participate in, and also to difficult questions that surround them. This Filter report on controversies around Vancouver’s decriminalization model prompted me to reflect once more on my brother’s death, and how it should lead me to interpret these issues.
The criticisms of Vancouver’s plan included that people who use drugs were not adequately consulted in its development, whereas police were. Specific concerns included that the model set personal-use thresholds too low to fully protect people who use drugs from criminalization and other harms.
Centering the experiences and voices of people who use drugs in our policymaking is a principle I consider essential, for reasons that are self-evident.
I also understand, very clearly, the harms that policing a public health issue has created. I was part of the system that inflicted them. I experienced how the same system contributed to my brother’s death. I have known and worked with countless others who have been harmed by drug-war policing.
As my work at LEAP illustrates, I simultaneously believe that advocacy from law enforcement can and must play a role in undoing those harms. It often has the ability to reach those parts of electorates and legislatures where other drug policy reform messengers can struggle. Pro-reform law enforcement voices have been critical in winning the consensus necessary to get many reforms adopted that have positively impacted people’s lives—from spreading cannabis legalization to sentencing reform to laws aimed at mitigating the harms of drug-law enforcement at the state level.
This practical facility to achieve real-world wins mirrors my resolve, inspired by Billy, to do whatever it takes.
Both the successful passage of reforms and better advocacy, here and abroad, have forced a recognition within branches of law enforcement that we can’t arrest our way out of a public health crisis. In a recent California Assembly Public Safety hearing on the decriminalization of psychedelics, the lobbyist for the California Narcotics Officers Association (CNOA) stated that the “CNOA is not about incarcerating people for possession of drugs.” This statement—while belated, requiring scrutiny and coming in the wake of far too many harms—would have been impossible 10 years ago. It points to chances for a better future, and reflects the power of simultaneous advocacy in many sectors.
This practical facility to achieve real-world wins that can, right now, make life better for people who use drugs mirrors my resolve, inspired by Billy, to do whatever it takes. Many prominent leaders of the drug policy reform and harm reduction movements share that resolve, working closely with LEAP on the strategies that produce legislative and ballot-measure victories.
To return to the Vancouver example, would it be better if the personal-use thresholds were higher? Yes—and if the model were improved in other ways. It is important that advocates aim high, hold policymakers to account and push for the best possible legislation in every case. Ultimately, if we truly want to treat substance use disorder within a public health framework, we must work together to push national health care officials to establish threshold limits and provide clarity for everyone.
At the same time, would higher thresholds, other adjustments and nationalization make the model perfect? Absolutely not. Because decriminalization, while necessary, does too little to address the toxic unregulated drug supply. Only a safe supply of drugs will adequately protect people who use them from the adulteration and uncertain dosages that drive the large majority of overdose deaths.
Many advocates and experts in Canada, including law enforcement, have been calling for safe supply and implementing it. MySafe Society, which runs an innovative opioid “vending machines” project, recently announced its expansion to three new cities. “The only option is providing a safe supply that isn’t tainted with unknown poisonous substances,” said its founder, Dr. Mark Tyndall.
I completely agree. Yet such programs, like decriminalization, are necessary but not sufficient. We need safe supply not only for opioids, but for other drugs like stimulants. We need it to be widely available for fentanyl. And, rather than restricting it to medicalized models for enlisted patients and people with substance use disorders, we need safe supply to be available to everyone who chooses to use drugs, in a system that no longer criminalizes and punishes.
There can be tensions between the most practical ways of achieving progress and how we might prefer to go about it—and in the necessity of fighting for measures that still leave us far short.
Every single drug policy reform that has ever been enacted can validly be criticized for not going far enough. Marijuana legalization ignores other drugs. Proliferating harm reduction resources doesn’t remedy structural inequalities. Decriminalization models fail to fix the supply. The list goes on.
Yet restrictive medical marijuana legalization did pave the way for adult-use legalization in many places. And earlier legalization models have evolved into ones that begin to address social equity and restitution for drug-war harms. Decriminalization from Portugal to Oregon has opened the door to further conversations and progress by providing real-world examples of the benefits. Vancouver’s decriminalization efforts have inspired other mayors across British Columbia and even in the United States—where Congresswoman Cori Bush recently called for a safe supply of drugs as well. Safe supply models can be expanded, drug-by-drug and to widening swaths of the population.
As advocates, we sometimes have difficult balancing acts to maintain. There can be tensions between the most practical ways of achieving progress and how we might prefer to go about it. There can be great frustration in policymakers’ reluctance to adopt measures shown by the evidence to be urgent and vital—and in the necessity, frequently, of fighting hard for measures that we know will still leave us far short of where we ultimately want to be.
I’ll keep going because I know that even a small step forward is worth it, and that bigger steps often follow. Because I owe it to Billy. Because every drug user’s life is important.
Photograph of a mural in Bristol, England, featuring the author, courtesy of Transform Drug Policy Foundation and Anyone’s Child
LEAP is the former fiscal sponsor of The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter.