‘Our Children are Dying’: Meet the Activists Saying ‘No More’ to the ‘War on Drugs’

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Last month, openDemocracy was in New York to meet the Caravan Activists, a remarkable group of men and women, who have lost loved ones to the ‘war on drugs’. Now they campaign to change the system.


By Benjamin Ramm / 05.16.2016

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Donna May, “mumsDU”: My daughter Jack was an opiate user. I found her in an overdose one evening and rushed her to the hospital. In hospital, the doctor failed to recognise that she was indeed in an overdose situation and failed to administer naloxone, the opiate reversal drug. And I sat there and had to watch her while her respirations declined, and she eventually went into cardiac arrest and passed away. And they revived her and left it to me to decide to pull the plug. I think that Canada needs to be adequately educated and trained in responding to overdose and I think that all measures of an overdose should be looked at. Had the drugs that my daughter was taking been legalised and regulated, they wouldn’t have been cut with levamisole that eventually led to tremendous infection within her body, causing necrotising fasciitis or flesh-eating disease; my daughter lost her legs.

Karen Garrison, radio host of “Mommie-activist and sons”: Well I think that, as all wars end in tragedies, and that the tragedies have taken their toll, I think that now you should consider alternatives to incarceration. I mean, not everybody’s on drugs, but the ones that are need some kind of treatment. It should be considered not just one time, but several times – the proper treatment for the proper person. Don’t cookie-cut these treatments and say, “well he’s a heroin addict just send him there. He’s a crack addict send him there”. But the first thing: incarceration alone is a horrific thing, whether it’s one day, one year or a hundred years, or these triple life sentences they give people that are just ludicrous. Alternatives to incarceration, period. A lot of people that went to jail didn’t have to, because when they went, it broke down a whole community, the whole family, all of these things. It’s like a domino effect on everything. Now that we’ve already had this war, the casualties are off the chart. It’s time to reconsider incarceration.

Leslie McBain, “mumsDU”: My son Jordan was diagnosed with a minor back injury and our physician gave him about seven months worth of oxycodone over seven months. He was firmly addicted. He asked to go to detox  – he did go to detox – and he came out with no support. It was a few months later, he couldn’t take the strain of withdrawal, and he relapsed and he died from an overdose. I have been completely radicalised by the way everything went. The doctors were not conversant in addiction and withdrawal. I have been working on that. I have been working on the drug naloxone, that reverses the opiates, the “Good Samaritan law” where someone will call with no consequences to emergency services. So I see that as the smaller picture. The larger picture is ending the ‘war on drugs’ which takes care of all harms.

Dr. Tamara Olt, JOLT Foundation: It’s such a criminal justice approach right now versus a health approach. And so my son used alone because of the stigma and shame that he felt. He was only 16, and he was afraid to tell me or anybody to get help and so he died, using alone. So that’s why I’ve decided to not be quiet, to tell my story. I’m not ashamed of my son; he was an amazing child, but my story is way too common. Our children are dying. The billions of dollars and a failed war on drugs, there has to be another answer. And not one where mums should be standing here like me.

I think that we have a huge battle in front of us with decriminalisation, which I do support. But boy, there are still a lot of people here who see using drugs as a moral failure, an ethical issue and I really see it as a human rights issue. But you know, coming from Illinois there’s a lot of people who do not. Everybody’s still about “put the dealer in jail, put the users in jail”. I heard a sheriff say: “we’re gonna bring the hammer down on these users”. And I’m like, you’ve got to be kidding me, it’s not how we’re going to get people to stop, or get them help. We’ve got a lot of work, but at least the conversation is happening.

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