Getting at the Root of the War on Drugs

war on drugs

As most cannabis business professionals know, the work on cannabis legalization continues to struggle in the shadow of the failed war on drugs.

The belief that marijuana is a gateway to heavier drugs other cannabis misconceptions still strongly affect public opinion and legislator discussions because of policies put in place in 1970.

More than 1.8 million people in the U.S. were arrested for drug offenses in 2008. Of those arrests, 1.4 million were for drug possession. More than 30,000 people are in prison in California alone for drug offenses, two-thirds of those for possession.


The first complaints came from parents or relatives of those locked up. Family members saw first-hand how destructive jail time could be. Misguided policies led to convictions for possessing even small quantities of marijuana, destroying the lives of people who previously had no concept about the system, and the cycle, of incarceration.

One of those family members turned to activism. Gretchen Burns Bergman, a housewife and mother in San Diego with two sons who struggle with addictive illness, co-founded and served as executive director for A New PATH (Parents for Addiction, Treatment and Healing). The organization played a critical role in redefining California’s approach, beginning in 2000 with Proposition 36. Proposition 36 mandates treatment instead of incarceration.

For the past five years, Bergman has led Moms United to End the War on Drugs, an outgrowth of A New PATH. Moms United is a national call to action for mothers who advocate therapeutic drug policies and changes to current drug laws. “I started Moms United because my son had been arrested and incarcerated for marijuana possession,” she said. “I had the sense at that time that it was so wrong. People who use drugs or become addicted to drugs, as my son was, were treated like criminals and put behind bars, wasting away.”

Bergman said the collaborative group encourages parents and other individuals to speak out about arrest and incarceration in order to reduce the stigma, allowing people to talk about drugs and addiction in a more sensible and enlightened way.

Proposition 36 began a slow change in the public perception of incarceration for drug offenses, Bergman said. “People started to understand that this is a mental health issue that needs to be handled. I think [Prop 36] started legislation in other states and more conversation about how we handle the war on drugs, which is really about a war on families.”

From that point, she began advocating a whole host of harm-reduction strategies that call for an end to punitive policies.

Moms United debuted in 2009, after Bergman realized the war on drugs paralleled Prohibition. The short-lived war on alcohol had a similar effect, proving disastrous for families who lost loved ones to gangland violence. “I thought [Moms United] could be more of a coalition, a collaborative campaign led by mothers and using the moral authority of mothers to push policy,” she said. “After the end of the first year, after we did some statewide rallies and campaigns, we realized that this is not just a state issue. It’s really a nationwide, and even an international, issue.”

The movement has continued to grow, with representatives now in approximately forty cities in twenty-eight U.S. states, Canada, and Mexico. Funding comes from the Drug Policy Alliance and grants from a California foundation.

Unlike Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a very successful advocacy organization that has created stricter alcohol laws, Moms United was created to provide solutions. “That’s why we very consciously called it Moms United to End the War on Drugs,” she said. “We are solution-oriented.” Mom’s United is endorsed by other organizations working to change drug laws, including Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, Families for Justice as Healing, Professionals Against Prohibition, and others.

Families for Sensible Drug Policy, co-founded by harm reduction psychologist Barry Lessin, is a newer advocacy organization fighting the war on drugs in Philadelphia. Lessin began working in the addiction field thirty-eight years ago at Eagleville Hospital, which was then considered a pioneer in addiction treatment.

He said his practice was significantly affected by his nephew’s struggle with mental health issues and substance misuse, causing him to examine the stigmatizing and criminalizing drug policies that make it difficult for people with substance use problems to get treatment. “I worked up until five years ago in a one-size-fits-all system, until I learned of my nephew’s struggles with mental health and drug misuse,” he said. “My family looked to me for guidance, and I realized that my traditional approach of tough love was nearly disastrous for him.”

Lessin also was seeing clients in his practice die from overdoses. “So, I began to look at the larger picture, and I became aware of the war on drugs and how that was really a war on families and communities,” he said.

In 2011, he began working with overdose prevention organizations; working with nonprofits and families that lost loved ones to drug abuse. “I began getting feedback from them about the pain that they had and the rage that they had for the treatment that I was a part of,” he said. “I realized that something needed to change.”

He and his cofounder, Carol Katz Beyer, whose family was impacted by substance use and whose expertise in social media, healthcare marketing, and developing her family’s residential healthcare business, formed a Facebook page in February, 2015 that now has nearly 2,000 followers – with a growing, global reach. “Our projects include highly acclaimed unique forums and events that bring together communities, to embrace enlightened drug policies–empowering families, restoring health, and saving lives. We are connecting families with progressive Substance Use Disorder treatment professionals which empowers families to advocate for more effective individualized and research-based treatments for their loved ones.

“Our country is, on the one hand, the land of the free and the home of the brave,” Lessin said. “But there is an ugly underbelly of human rights abuses at all levels. This is where the core of the problem is. The problem is not substance use—it’s a public health problem. It’s a social change problem. Families for Sensible Drug Policy is connecting families with the global community to directly address the underlying issues such as poverty, racism, and gender inequality in order to reform drug policies.”