There is no grief like that of a parent who has lost a child. The overdose crisis has seen countless parents, their numbers swelling daily, suffer the unthinkable and bury their children.
For over 100 years this country has attempted to eliminate certain drug use through policies based on the interdiction of drugs and the arrest and incarceration of people who use and sell them. And for over 100 years these policies have failed. This failure is evidenced by over 109,000 deaths in 2022 and a projection of over 1,000,000 deaths in the decade 2020 to 2029.
For over seven years I have served as a board member of Broken No More, an organization founded by and primarily representing parents who lost their child to overdose. Our members understand that to keep other parents from burying their children, this country must discard its drug war, and instead pursue policies based on public health, science and harm reduction.
But over the last few years, other bereaved parents have formed organizations with views diametrically opposed to those of Broken No More. And they have become a powerful force in this country.
Against all evidence and humanity, many states are implementing more punitive drug laws, such as lower amounts of fentanyl triggering mandatory minimum sentences, sentencing enhancements for fentanyl possession and sales, and drug-induced homicide (DIH) laws.
A key driving force behind their spread is organizations formed by parents whose children died of what they term fentanyl poisoning.
Under these DIH laws, if a person sells, delivers or shares fentanyl and a death occurs, they can be charged with homicide. Evidence shows that they not only fail to prevent deaths, but increase them by dissuading people from seeking emergency aid. They fuel more incarceration, with racist outcomes. And many of the people prosecuted are friends or family members who were sharing drugs with the person who overdosed.
These laws are supported and promoted by politicians from both sides of the aisle, as well as prosecutors and law enforcement.
But a key driving force behind their spread is organizations formed by parents whose children died of what they term fentanyl poisoning—organizations such as Drug-Induced Homicide, Families Against Fentanyl and Facing Fentanyl.
The grief of these parents touches on the unbearable. To read their stories, to see them testify in legislative hearings holding a picture of their dead child, is heartbreaking. But their grief, no matter how devastating, does not confer validity on their beliefs. Their agenda, however sincerely conceived, will cause more deaths.
These parent-formed organizations have come to dominate the national narrative regarding fentanyl. They have done so with a simple but powerful message: “My child was not an addict. They did not intend to die. They were deceived. They thought they were buying oxycodone but the dealer sold them fentanyl. My child did not overdose. The dealer poisoned my child.”
While some of these organizations emphasize different goals, they would agree with some or all of the below:
* Establish explicit DIH laws in every state
* Increase the number of DIH prosecutions and convictions
* More punitive laws for fentanyl possession and sales
* Have fentanyl declared a Weapon of Mass Destruction
* Have trafficking groups designated as terrorist organizations
* Organize to lobby effectively at the local, state and national level
* Support law enforcement, prosecutors and politicians that are aligned with their goals
And then there’s the Drug Enforcement Administration. In June 2022, the DEA held its first National Family Summit: “DEA invited representatives from over 80 organizations formed mostly by parents who have experienced the profound loss of a child due to a drug poisoning or overdose.”
The agency then followed up by holding local Family Summits to engage more of these organizations: “During the week of November 14, DEA field divisions across the country will host local Family Summits in their community in order to bring together families who have lost loved ones to drug poisonings or overdoses, federal partners, and community prevention groups.”
The DEA is actively recruiting and collaborating with parent organizations that are on board with its program.
The DEA also created a memorial at its headquarters: “a special exhibit, The Faces of Fentanyl, to commemorate the lives lost from fentanyl poisoning.” And it is this “fentanyl poisoning” narrative that is being used by law enforcement, prosecutors and politicians to push for more punitive drug laws and, in particular, DIH laws for fentanyl.
The DEA, with its vested interest in upholding and escalating the drug war, is actively recruiting, collaborating and partnering with parent organizations that are on board with that program.
This is seen in the DEA’s goals for the National Family Summit: “This first-ever event will provide opportunities for DEA to share information on the scope of current drug threats, exchange ideas with these parent groups on how DEA could support them in their work, learn of their local efforts, ask them for their help with sharing the One Pill Can Kill fake pill awareness campaign in their communities, identify areas for further collaboration, and build or reinforce existing relationships and partnerships.”
The power of the grief and pain of these parents and their stories of loss is a potent weapon for the DEA.
Let’s be clear. These parent-formed organizations are being used by those who profit from racist drug-war policies. They are being used by organizations and politicians who are weaponizing fentanyl to further their agendas.
Parent after parent came to the microphone to deliver the same message: The dealer poisoned my child. Such testimony is almost impossible for lawmakers to resist.
Because these parent-formed organizations, with their narrative of dealers poisoning their children, have become the face of the fentanyl-involved overdose crisis, it is to the benefit of law enforcement, prosecutors, politicians and the DEA to support them and increase their power. And as they become more powerful, voices for humane drug policies and harm reduction are drowned out by emotive drug-war rhetoric.
I have no interest in condemning people who have suffered the most terrible loss a parent can suffer. But their loss endows them with a moral authority that others do not have. This moral authority gives them a voice. And these parent-formed organizations are using that voice, eagerly amplified by drug warriors, to drive this country toward more punitive drug policies.
I have witnessed legislative hearings debating fentanyl DIH bills in Colorado and California, where parent after parent came to the microphone, with tears and anger, to deliver the same message: The dealer poisoned my child with fentanyl. Such testimony is almost impossible for lawmakers to resist.
But emotion and a desire for retribution are poor bases for drug policy. These organizations are embracing the very policies that have resulted in the saturation of the illicit opioid supply with fentanyl and other synthetics. These are the very laws that put a a substance containing fentanyl in their children’s hands. Their deaths are not due to a poisoner, but to the toxicity of the illicit opioid supply created and sustained by drug-war policies. Their support of these policies ensures that more people will die. And more parents will bury their children.
Many other parents who have lost a child to overdose have very different views. They share the moral authority that comes with their loss. But despite the intensity of their emotions, they adhere to the evidence.
Bereaved parents can be powerful allies of harm reduction. But they need the community’s support to do this work.
We can win. In California this year, Aimee Dunkle, a board member for Broken No More and executive director of the Solace Foundation, testified in opposition to a fentanyl DIH bill, Alexandra’s Law. She lost her 20-year-old son, Ben, to an overdose.
Her powerful testimony, along with the efforts of Glenn Backes (Ella Baker Center), Jeannette Zanipatin (Drug Policy Alliance) and many others, succeeded in defeating this bill.
Bereaved parents can be powerful allies of harm reduction. They can successfully push back against these punitive drug laws. But they need the community’s support to do this work. If you care about saving lives, this is your fight too.
Photograph via PublicDomainPictures.net
The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, previously received a restricted grant from the Drug Policy Alliance to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.