Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform
committed to preventing tragedy that arises from illicit drug use
Grief to Activism
Why Some and Not Others?
By Brian McConnell. Published in The Drug Policy Letter, Spring (US) 1998
By the end of the Easter break in 1995, eight people in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) had died as a result of heroin related overdose. Unlike the previous deaths, these attracted a lot of media attention because of the relatively large number of deaths in such a short time. The community was suddenly faced with tragedy of young lives lost and became aware of what was commonplace in other major cities.
In 1994, 349 mostly young people in Australia lost their lives to heroin. In 1995, 591 died, in 1996, 634 died and in 1997 an estimated 700 died. This represents an unthinkable level of grief and pain for the families and friends of those mostly young people, especially when, with enlightened policies, they could have been prevented. Many dependent heroin users are in poor health and financial position because of the high cost of the drug. Others are forced to resort to crime or have serious illnesses from sharing needles and many have overdosed and died because of a lack of quality control on heroin and its use.
For one father in the ACT in that pre Easter period in 1995, the death of his son caused him to question the laws and wonder why the current system had allowed a very potent drug - believed to be 70% pure - to be sold to his son with no controls whatsoever. As a result, this father and Independent Member of the Legislative Assembly in the ACT and then President of the Australian Parliamentary Group for Drug Law Reform, Michael Moore called, what was to be, the first meeting of the Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform (FFDLR).
In the early developmental stages of the group there was a great deal of interest and commitment but there was also a great deal of inexperience. We lacked knowledge of our subject area, we did not know all the issues, we did not know who the main players were. Our first priority was to inform ourselves. We then needed to develop a plan of action, we needed to let others know that we existed and importantly we were keen to make a difference. Like any group at the formative stage we took great care to make sure that the enthusiasm was not lost, that good ideas were not dismissed. We decided to confine our attention initially to heroin because it was the prime reason for forming the group. This proved to be a very good decision because it did provide a very clear focus.
It is our experience that parents react in different ways to illicit drug use in their families but it would seem that many more are beginning to see that the present system is not working.
Another father in that pre Easter period lost a 16-year-old daughter within sight of the hospital. He immediately called for stronger law enforcement. But within a few months had changed and was calling for a change to the drug laws to repeal prohibition.
Another father, who in that same year lost a daughter to ecstacy (the first ecstacy death in Australia), called for stronger law enforcement. He has been a strong opponent to the ACT heroin trial and even now, some 2 years on, still advocates stronger laws and law enforcement for all illicit drugs.
A state police commissioner within the last 6 months changed his view from calling for stronger border controls to calling for innovative approaches because he believed the war on drugs was lost.
So why does one parent who has lost a child to illegal drugs change their mind and recognise that the law is the problem, and another parent become more adamant in their view and support for prohibition?
In the two years that followed my sons death from heroin there were questions, there were recriminations: how had this happened? what had I done to cause this? why was there so little help? why was there no practical advice while he was alive?
At first I was angry with his friends who let him use heroin, but the anger was futile and two of those friends are now also dead. Then I was angry with those who sold him the drugs and those who brought them into the country. I was angry with the police for contributing to this tragedy. My wife rightly saw police involvement as a hazard to the health care he needed. I am now angry with governments that are blind to the fact that prohibition laws are the source of so much tragedy.
My change of attitude came about because I had asked those questions and I had a personal reason to become more informed. Others who have moved away from a stronger law enforcement stance have asked questions. The answers changed them!
The police commissioner saw things differently when told of the death of a friends son to heroin. The answers for him were always there but it took this personal experience to see them!
Other parents in our group have asked similar questions:
- Rose* who helped her son over 10 years of addiction realised over time that "prohibition hasnt worked in the past, isnt working now, and there is no reason to believe it will work in the future". She proudly proclaims "I love my son dearly and am proud to be his mum, our relationship continues to be a reciprocal one of learning and growing". Her son survives today.
- Betty* spent 25 days sitting by her daughters hospital bed watching over her. Her daughter was near death because of a heart infection from injecting. She undertook the vigil not only because she feared friends might want to supply heroin, but also to protect her daughter from patronising and derogatory treatment which can be encountered in organisations that deal with "junkies". During that time she started to ask questions. "Why are some drugs legal, like alcohol which makes people violent and is more toxic, and a drug like heroin is illegal?" "Why are we throwing people into jail for smoking opium when smoking tobacco which causes lung cancer is acceptable?" Her daughter also survives today.
- Aden* struggled with heroin addiction in silence for many years. He tried various treatment programs, always ending in failure. His family when they discovered, provided love and support. His very enlightened employer also provided support. He died at home. When his sister arrived at the family home there were 6 police present and 4 more arrived shortly after. She wondered why the police were there, this was a health problem, he was not a criminal. Why were the police intruding on their grief with endless questions, taking photographs and searching his room until 3 am? "It is disgusting," she thought.
These people asked questions. They loved and did not reject their family member. The answers took them to the next stage of realisation that the laws were the real problem. Thus it seems to me that there are stages through which those who have lost (or very nearly lost) a loved one to illegal drugs progress. Firstly to grief, anger and blame and then to realisation.
Many never progress beyond anger and blame. The father who lost a daughter to ecstacy seems still to be at this stage.
The issue for us is how to get all affected parents and the community to move to the last stage of emerging awareness and subsequent action.
Moving to this stage can come through asking the questions, having an open mind to the realities. It also makes a difference when help is provided in finding the answers to the questions. For FFDLR, help and encouragement came from the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation and the Australian Parliamentary Group for Drug Law Reform. They provided suggestions and guidance at the early formative meetings and provided pointers to reading material. At a later time, attendance at the 7th International Conference on the Reduction of Drug Related Harm also proved extremely valuable. Much early resource information was gleaned from the Internet, such as Mario Laps and Clifford Schaffers web sites. There are now many sites including our own.
FFDLR aims to raise awareness of the issues in the community by providing factual information, but indirectly we also provide assistance to help parents move through the various stages to realisation.
In my vision of the future I see a network of FFDLR groups or groups with similar aims in all countries, working together, sharing resources, raising awareness and creating a groundswell, mass movement in the community demanding change and rationality. This will be a powerful force in reducing the harm from illicit drugs.