Moms Can Lead the Fight to End the Drug War

    I teared up as I watched Leroy Walker Sr., whose son was killed in the recent mass shooting in Maine, explain why he is not angry at the man who did it. Instead, the father pointed out on MSNBC’s The 11th Hour on November 3: “We failed … the system failed.”

    Family and military superiors of the man who killed Walker’s son had reported concerns over his behavior and mental health to law enforcement. This did not prevent 18 murders.

    As parents, we have a special responsibility to call out what is clearly and obviously a failed system. Our criminal-legal system has manifestly failed, time and again, to prevent crime; to honor victims; or to deliver solutions to issues related to mental health and drugs. With its focus instead on retribution, it was simply not designed to do these things.

    Some might think: Wait—don’t victims of crime really just want to punish people in prisons? That is mostly a myth.

    “We have … surveyed more than 10,000 victims—that is, people who have either been directly hurt by violent or property crime or whose immediate family members have been murdered,” wrote Lenore Anderson, cofounder of the Alliance for Safety and Justice and author of In Their Names, in the Atlantic in October.

    Our special responsibility as parents applies acutely to the drug war and its terrible consequences for generations of families.

    “We found that most victims prefer an approach to public safety that addresses the problem at its roots—say, by treating addiction, offering conflict mediation and mentorship for vulnerable youth, or providing crisis assistance for people with mental illness—and prepares people with convictions for reintegration and law-abiding citizenship,” she continued. “Victims are generally no tougher on crime than nonvictims; they prefer rehabilitation over tough justice, even though they’ve had firsthand experience with crime and the criminal-justice system.”

    Our special responsibility as parents applies acutely to the drug war and its terrible consequences for generations of families. Parents are a constituency that few politicians want to cross.

    It’s worth remembering that moms played a major role in starting alcohol Prohibition; but also, ultimately, in ending it.

    The wider drug war has many complex causes—notably racism. Yet similar patterns can be observed, with bereaved parents, for example, being used by law enforcement to spread more punitive policies. By the same token, in the face of rampant criminalization of people with substance and mental health challenges, I believe moms can—and must—help to stop it.

    In 2010, when I published an op-ed titled “Why Parents Should Support Legalizing Pot,” I had a new kindergartener and a 7-year-old, and I was a soccer and PTA mom. After we dropped off our second kid at college this summer, I looked back at that old piece, saying how I really wanted my kids to live in a world where marijuana is legal, and I still think the same—about all drugs.

    In fact, having parented teenagers, I feel even more strongly that it is fundamentally wrong to place (especially) young people experiencing substance use issues in a non-therapeutic space such as a prison or jail. The use of incarceration should be extremely disfavored for people with mental health and/or substance use challenges, and entirely discontinued when they have not severely harmed others.

    We need to stop thinking about arrest as the beginning of a system. Arrest is actually the back end of a really bad system of care.

    The state, in fact, should not decide what happens to our kids who are struggling, in the absence of harms to others. I would be devastated and infuriated if, in my child’s moments of deepest struggle, the state arrested or harmed my child. And in a drug war waged unequally by race and class, we must view this as equally unacceptable for anyone’s child. We have to reject the idea that it’s ok to take anyone away at the moment they may most need the care and support of their families.

    We need to stop thinking about arrest as the beginning of a system. Arrest is actually the back end of a really bad system of care that has failed our communities. Our criminal-legal system is used as a facade for the pervasive lack of available and accessible care for community members in need of support.

    As the drug war, the “tough-on-crime” policies of the ’80s and ’90s, and the abandonment of the rehabilitative ideal fueled this country’s adherence to the police-punishment-prison response, we spent billions on incarceration and stopped investing in community health resources. Most people we now arrest have lacked the resources to get ahead of problems in their lives—problems that are greatly compounded by arrest.

    We know that consistent access to health care reduces both mortality and recidivism for formerly incarcerated people; and the obvious conclusion is that if people were cared for at earlier points when they’re currently being failed, many criminal-legal problems would not emerge in the first place.

    It is time for moms and all parents to join together and make clear that we don’t want harsh punishments and more arrests and prosecutions. Rather, we want to shower consistent, loving attention on all people so they don’t get overwhelmed or desperate and struggle to maintain stability without the help they deserve.

    We want this—we are moms!—for all our young people, to help them build tools and supports to live healthy, fulfilling lives.

    We must demand a system that centers individual, family and community health and safety—an ecosystem of care rather than the failed system of mass incarceration.

    Moms United to End the War on Drugs, whose steering committee I just joined after years of involvement, will continue to advocate for the 100 percent of us who make mistakes and the 100 percent of us who can’t do life alone. Let’s please take care of each other’s children when we are acting in the name of “the people.” 



    Photograph of protest at the United Nations in New York courtesy of Moms United to End the War on Drugs

    • Hanna is a longtime criminal policy reform attorney who now serves as director of policy and legal affairs at the Center for Justice and Human Dignity. The views expressed here are solely her own. She lives in New York City.

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