For six years, I have run what we call “meaning groups” for a program that works with young, drug addicted women in trouble with child welfare. Because of confidentiality, I can’t write about the women in it, but I keep thinking of a New Mexican woman from my past who experienced similar issues. She would have qualified for our programing if we’d had it then thirty-six years ago.
The woman rode into our town in New Mexico in the back of a truck, holding her baby on her lap. She was overweight, dressed in overalls, and wore her long red hair in braids. The baby had a mass of red hair. Over the next months I got to know the woman in the community outreach program my husband and I ran. She called herself “Blues” and I never learned her real name. She came to my women’s group one night and told us her story.
Her mother, a drug abuser, raised her in the mountains near Estes Park, Colorado. One day her mother overdosed. Blues lived alone in a cabin with her mother’s body for days. Eventually, neighbors found her and placed her with her father. He used her for sex and sold her to his buddies. When she was old enough, she ran away from home. She made her way to the mountains of New Mexico where an older woman took her into her extended family outside of Taos. The woman was kind to her, but Blues got pregnant. The old woman helped her give birth, and Blues could have stayed living with her, but the old woman developed cancer. When she died, the family broke up. Blues and the baby wandered from place to place. Finally, she found another temporary home with a family living in the mountains around our town. The baby soon became a toddler who clung to the leg of his mother’s overalls.
Eventually, the funding for our job ended, and we planed to move to Wisconsin. As we prepared to go, I noticed that Blues was rapidly losing weight. I asked her about it. “Just dieting hard,” she said.
“Speed,” someone else whispered.
I do not know what happened to Blues. Perhaps she evaded a descent into addiction and is living a healthy life somewhere, but I do know that women with backgrounds similar to hers make up the population of those in the program where I work. Their stories make my knees quake when I hear them.
They are also casualties in the “War on Drugs,” which was first named in 1971, then proclaimed to the world during the Reagan administration. Many of the women I work with have been in and out of jail, arrested for minor drug possession or petty crimes as they try to maintain what had been their habits. Most have lost their children, although they are in drug treatment as they attempt to get their children back.
Gabor Mate, MD, in his book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, 2008, writes about the people he serves in his Canadian street clinic. He also declares his objection to the way the War on Drugs, which he believes is fruitless and actually injures people. Mate asks the following questions about it. “Are its aims valid and attainable? Are the means employed likely to achieve the desired goals? What are the human and economic costs of carrying it out?” (287)
He answers his questions when he says, “The War on Drugs fails–and is doomed to perpetual failure–because it is directed not against the root causes of drug addiction or of the international black market in drugs, but only against some drug producers, traffickers, and users. More fundamentally, the war is doomed because neither the methods of war nor the war metaphor itself is appropriate to a complex social problem that calls for compassion, self-searching insight, and factually researched scientific understanding.” (298-299)
The kinds of circumstances Blues experienced growing up generally make such people vulnerable to all sorts of social problems, including addiction and child abuse or neglect, although I have no evidence that Blues’ behavior toward her child fit in these categories.
In 2001, the King County Bar Association in Washington State adopted a statement asserting that the War on Drugs is fundamentally flawed. Mate quotes their conclusions. Among others, they list:
* the failure to reduce problematic drug use, particularly among children
* skyrocketing public costs arising from both increased drug abuse and increased crime.
* erosion of public health from the spread of disease, from the concealment and inadequate treatment of addiction, and from undue restriction on proper medical treatment of pain
* disproportionately adverse effects of drug law enforcement on the poor and persons of color (298)
Instead of prosecuting people with backgrounds similar to those of Blues,
we must treat them with great respect and compassion. We did not protect them as children, and they deserve the best resources of our society.