The war on drug users' families

"While the drug laws did not stop my sons from getting into drugs, they certainly went a long way to stop them from getting out." An open letter from a mother who lost her sons to overdoses. 

1 November 2013

As a mother of two drug addicts I was too ashamed to tell friends of my sons’ problems and the real reason why they dropped out of courses of study or training or jobs. It was a burden keeping it to myself and trying to appear normal to friends and colleagues while I was upset about my sons’ recent behaviour and worried about what they might be doing.

Families of drug users would be helped by changes in UK laws enabling a more tolerant approach to drug taking. The current laws cause family members to feel ashamed, anxious and afraid, sometimes over many years. I believe they sometimes also cause families to be bereaved. There are numerous compelling reasons why drug policy should be changed, but this letter is about how the drug laws affected me personally as a family member.

A change in government policy causing a more tolerant attitude in society would help family members to feel they could speak more openly; this would have two benefits, that of making them feel better by being able to share their problems, and that of spreading knowledge from personal experience, which could help other families.

A local newspaper reported my son being arrested for possession of cannabis. The shame was overwhelming. I suspected that everybody I knew had read it, even though nobody ever said that they had, and I never discovered whether anyone had seen it. Needless to say, I would have been spared this if possession of cannabis was not a criminal offence.

Another shameful occasion was when the police arrived at our house with a warrant to search my son’s room because he was suspected of shoplifting. Although this was not due to a violation of drugs laws, I don’t believe my son would have become involved in the sort of life that would lead him to steal if he had not been a drug user in a society that criminalises drug users. I suspect that the criminal aspect of drug use gives it a dangerous and exciting appeal for susceptible young adolescents, which leads to them entering a culture where they mix with much more unprincipled people.

To get money for drugs my sons would steal from me or my husband. We lived with anxiety and learned to lock things in our bedroom so they wouldn’t be able to steal money or other possessions. It is a sad situation not to be able to move freely in and out of your own bedroom because you have to use a hidden key to unlock the door each time. If my sons were at home I always had to be aware of where my handbag was and keep it with me. Again, I believe that my sons would not have sunk to such depths as to steal from us if they had not become part of a ‘criminal’ culture caused by the drugs laws.

Fear was another consequence – fear that the phone ringing, especially late at night, would be to say that a son had been arrested or was in some other sort of trouble.

There was more fear when, while my son was away for a few days and I was alone in the house, one of his ‘friends’ turned up demanding money that he said my son owed him, and threatening to break my windows.

The worst fear directly resulting from the drugs laws, though, was that I myself would be arrested. This was after my youngest son had died from a combination of heroin and alcohol, at a time when he was on the waiting list to begin a methadone programme. During the waiting time he had to keep his heroin use as low as possible and, in an effort to help ensure this and trying to keep him out of trouble and prevent him stealing from me, I’d come to an arrangement with him. The arrangement allowed me to feel calmer and make me feel I had some control. It meant that we agreed an amount and frequency of heroin that he would have until he could start on the methadone programme.

I would accompany him to a place near to where he’d meet his dealer, and I’d give him the money to pay for the heroin. He would then give me the wraps to hide away and hand out to him at agreed intervals. I was aware that what I was doing was against the law and I was very nervous about this, but it seemed to be the only way I could deal with the situation.

My actions were found out by the police during questioning after my son’s death. There were then months of worry until my husband and I were separately interviewed at the police station and the CPS made a decision. I didn’t know whether I would be charged with supplying drugs and what might then happen. The CPS eventually decided to take no further action.

Then there is the question of whether we became grieving bereaved parents directly because of the drugs laws. There was a delay in calling medical help when the people who were with my son realised something was wrong. We will never know if that delay was due to those people being afraid of getting into trouble, because of the illegality of using heroin. We will never know if he could have been saved without that delay. We will never know if the drugs laws cost him his life.

There are other parents who lose a child because of the unreliability of a drug obtained on the streets from a dealer. The drug could be adulterated, or stronger than expected, causing death; a possibility that would not occur if drugs were decriminalised, regulated, and sold in a controlled manner rather than by criminal gangs.

There are many reasons why the 'war on drugs' should be ended, and a perhaps overlooked by-product would be the greater wellbeing for the families of drug users. Of course, it would not end all the problems that can be caused by a drug user, and some users will still become addicts, but the decriminalisation of drugs use would considerably improve the situation for families. 

While the drug laws did not stop my sons from getting into drugs, they certainly went a long way to stop them from getting out. 

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