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Why Moms And Cops Are Uniting To End The Drug War

San Diego organization, Mom's United to End the War on Drugs is bringing attention to family devastation caused by the drug war with photographs of empty chairs at the holiday table.
San Diego organization, Mom's United to End the War on Drugs is bringing attention to family devastation caused by the drug war with photographs of empty chairs at the holiday table.
Moms United to End the War on Drugs
Why Moms And Cops Are Uniting To End The Drug War
GUESTS Gretchen Burns Bergman, executive director and co-founder of A New PATH and Moms United To End The War on DrugsDiane Goldstein, Retired Redondo Beach Police Lieutenant and Speaker, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition

CAVANAUGH: When families gather together for Thanksgiving along with the eating and catching up, people usually take lots of photographs. Those pictures are keepsakes, tracking a family's progress through the years. This year, a group called moms united to end the war on drugs wants families to take some different kinds of pictures of empty seats at the table. Those photos are meant to document family members who are in prison, who are on the streets, or who have died because of illegal drugs. I'd like to welcome my guest, Gretchen Burns Bergman is executive director of a new path, and moms united to end the war on drugs. Welcome to the show. BERGMAN: Thank you. CAVANAUGH: Diane Goldstein is with us as well, a retired lieutenant of the Redondo Beach police department, member of law enforcement against prohibition. Welcome to the program. GOLDSTEIN: Thank you very much for having me on. CAVANAUGH: Gretchen, you have personally had empty seats at the table at Thanksgiving. Tell us about that. BERGMAN: Over the year, yeah. We started a new path, and by the way, it stands for parents for addiction treatment and healing. And we started it because my son was in prison at the time for a nonviolent drug offense, for possession of marijuana. So I remember those times when I felt like I should either be at the prison visiting him or at the becausom of my family and not knowing really where I should be. Our association advocates for therapeutic rather than punitive drug policies. We decided to create a large campaign in 2010, to end the violence, the mass incarceration and arrest, and the accidental overdose deaths that are a result of these punitive drug prohibition policies. So yes, I have experienced it with both of my sons being missing at the holiday table. Stigma also plays a part of this. Off times we've been told to use tough love and not to have our children be around when they're in their addiction. The problem is, and I realized this after my older son had two overdose experiences that I knew of, and I realized that his bottom when they say just wait to let them hit bottom, would mean death. So we've stepped in and want to educate the public that this is a chronic relapsing disorder. This Thanksgiving, I must tell you, both of my sons will be at the holiday table. CAVANAUGH: That's fabulous. BERGMAN: But we will still set a table with a chair and seating for those that are not able to be with their families. CAVANAUGH: And that's my question, Gretchen. Why choose Thanksgiving as a time to focus on America's drug policy? Do you think these policies are -- have become especially damaging to families? BERGMAN: The war on drugs has essentially become a war against families and communities. In some neighborhoods, we're missing -- whole families are missing the man from the table, and now we're seeing more and more women being incarcerated as well. So it's really breaking up our families and communities. Because we're trying to incarcerate our way out of what is essentially a public health problem. We're seeing so many overdose deaths now. In some states, more overdose deaths than motor vehicle accidents. And 2.3 million people are incarcerated in the United States, and so many of those are for drug violations that we really have to do a systemic change in the way we deal with the problem of drug addiction. CAVANAUGH: You see this season mothers in your group are telling stories of injustice and devastation. Are there common themes do these stories? BERGMAN: Well, when I asked people to send in their picture of this empty chair, and last year we did an oped campaign, but this time I thought we'd do something visual, I'd ask them to say stigma, incarceration, accidental overdose, and this season, families deal with so much pain and loss, their children have lost their liberty or their children have lost their lives. So it's just a tremendously difficult time for many families. And I think it's a time to acknowledge that, and for mothers to step forward and say no more. This war is devastating our families and devastating our communities. So we must change. We must understand that this is a chronic relapsing disorder and we must handle it with therapeutic, compassionate, harm-reduction strategies. CAVANAUGH: Diane Goldstein. As a retired law enforcement official and now a member of law enforcement against prohibition, there are many families who have an empty place at the table because someone is in prison for breaking the law. And it's a tragedy for the family, but many might say they're glad criminals are in prison. Why should drug crimes be thought of differently? GOLDSTEIN: I think you have to go back to the long history of why drugs were criminalized in the first sense, which is what our country has forgotten. Our narcotics laws starting in 1914 with the Harrison tax act, and 1947 with the marijuana tax act were largely racist in nature. If you go back through the congressional record, you see references to blacks seducing women, and Chinese and opium denies, and dirty Hispanics. And it's pretty appalling that we have forgotten that these laws were crafted based on a bias. It is a victimless crime in some aspect. In the sense of what is our government's role and purpose? Are we supposed to save people from themselves? And I would counter to you that what government's role is to provide a model of compassion, to use harm-reduction strategy. Because they are both most cost-effective and more cost-efficient. The government has known for years that medical treatment of drug addiction returns more value to the taxpayer, dollar for dollar, is less costly than domestic enforcement. So we have to ask the question, what is it about us in America that we are willing to send our children and break up our families because of a -- whether it's an illicit or a legal drug? CAVANAUGH: I want to stop you there because I want to get to the empty chair photographs themselves. What are they supposed to do? BERGMAN: They're really intended to encourage others to speak out. When I first started advocating for therapeutic rather than punitive drug policy and sharing my story that, yes, my sons had addictive illness, and yes, I had a son in prison, it really opened a floodgate. A lot of people started speaking out. One in four families are dealing with addictive illness. And that means that more families are also dealing with a punitive criminal justice system that just exacerbates the problem. So I'm hoping by showing these pictures, it's a real sense of cleansing to be able to come out of the closet of this, denounce the shame and the stigma and move forward with positive solutions. We're asking people first to give us just the chair with the picture and the statement. But we're asking people on Thanksgiving to set that extra seat at the table and to take a picture of that. And we'll start pushing that forward through social marketing as well. Of CAVANAUGH: Where should people post these photographs? BERGMAN: There's a moms united Facebook page. It's pretty easy to ask to join, and then you can upload the picture. And if you have any problems at all, you can e-mail me at a new path at CAVANAUGH: I was interested in hearing that this group, your group and also law enforcement against prohibition actually -- you're inspired by moms from another time in history, from the 1920s during prohibition. What did moms have to do with ending alcohol prohibition back then? BERGMAN: It was funny. When I started this moms united to end the war on drugs campaign and reached out to others across the nation, it was because I saw a poster from the '30s. A woman with her hand held out, her child at her breast saying no more. And I realized that in 1930, a group of women were very instrumental in ending prohibition of alcohol. So it sort of was a call to action to me that we should do this again. And really throughout history women have come forward for the sake of their children. A mother's day was created in the same kind of way. To stop the violence, to stop the deaths, and to speak out for their family. CAVANAUGH: And from what I understand, during prohibition day, it went full-circle. There were a lot of women who were involved in creating prohibition. BERGMAN: Absolutely right. CAVANAUGH: But what you're saying now is that they as you are looking at what happened and saying, well, this doesn't work. BERGMAN: They were looking at the crime, the greed, the death because of the illicit market. And we're looking at the same thing. In Mexico, 60,000 people have died because of the drug wars. And that's happening now in the United States in alarming numbers as well. So we need to stop the illicit market and call for legalization, tax and regulation of marijuana. CAVANAUGH: Diane, you are, as I say, a law enforcement officer, and you know more than anybody else there are those in law enforcement who would say that criminal penalties for illegal drug use are actually keeping more people at the table because they have been deterred from using drugs in the first place. How do you respond? GOLDSTEIN: Well, first of all, I think it's an overreach of government, quite frankly. And there's only a small percentage of people that have been deterred from using drugs because of their illegality. They are at this point in a 40-year history since Richard Nixon, drugs are still universally available. Widespread to our children, to adults, anybody can go down and find marijuana, heroin, ecstasy, or anything else. And you talk about the prohibition issue, one of the tie-ins which is huge, is one of the first police chiefs, a famous police chief August gull mer, in the 1930s helped to end prohibition. And he believed in the full legalization of all drugs, and it was not government and law enforcement's role to criminalize any moralistic crime. From the drug addiction perspective, it was best left to the scientific mind to come up with the cure. And so we come full circle, and you see that with what happened in the election this year. CAVANAUGH: I was just going to mention that, right, to both of you. Gretchen, we have seen the voters approve the use of recreational marijuana in as Diane mentions Colorado and Washington. Do you think that makes -- we're seeing a shift in attitudes about drug use? BERGMAN: We're definitely seeing a shift. And over the 13 years that I've been working on this, I've seen a shift in attitude. But particularly recently. And you also have a lot of Latin American countries that are calling for legalization or decriminalization. And we almost did this in California a couple of years ago with Prop 19. So there's a definite shift. And it's because so many families are dealing with this. We know firsthand and feel the pain of policies that have been so damaging and devastating to our families. CAVANAUGH: Diane? GOLDSTEIN: It's very interesting because I think one of the reasons why both Colorado and Washington passed and why the political pushback on this national policy is that it's moms and cops that would be -- professional criminal justice professionals that were the stavers of both those campaigns. In Washington you had former attorney generals, one who happened to be a female and a mom. In Colorado you had cops and moms and soccer moms who necessarily didn't say I want marijuana to be legalized because I want to use it but because it provides a safer environment for our children. There is a role for government in the control and regulation of drugs. But why have we advocated responsibility to the criminals and the drug cartels and the thugs? We have we given them our children instead of putting money into education, preventative program, and to making our communities safer through the appropriate control, regulations, and taxation? CAVANAUGH: Right. Gretchen, I've spoken with people in law enforcement who have a very different idea about this than Diane does. And they will say they have seen too many people's lives destroyed by drugs. So therefore we have to keep them illegal and we have to make sure that there are penalties for their use so that people do not go down that path and ruin their lives. When you talk therapeutic intervention, are you specifically talking about removing all laws on illegal drugs or basically just treating people who are found to be using drugs illegally, treated in a different way? BERGMAN: Well, I don't think I can speak for the whole campaign because I think everybody has a different level of how far they're going to go. But basically we're talking about really looking at this as a public health issue. We have to stop criminalizing people who use drugs or who are addicted to drugs and really -- I want to just call out to Diane, Diane is a part of a large group, law enforcement against prohibitian, and there's many police and people in law enforcement who are saddened and sick of seeing so many people who are basically -- have a problem with drugs being put away for life. And then after that, they have it on their records. So they can't get employment, oftentimes housing, it's really -- it really can change a life. It's not just a life interrupted. It can be really a life destroyed from the criminal justice system. It's difficult enough to deal with the issue of addiction, much less the overall problem of getting into the criminal justice system. CAVANAUGH: Exactly. I have to end it there, I am so sorry. But the message I want to leave with people is that when they do pictures of the empty seats at their Thanksgiving table, they should go to your website. BERGMAN: To Facebook, and it's on moms united Facebook, and it's moms united to end the war on drugs. And if you have any problem at all uploading them there, send them to me at CAVANAUGH: Thank you both very much for speaking with us today. GOLDSTEIN: Thank you very much for having us on. BERGMAN: Thank you.

When families gather together for Thanksgiving, along with the eating and talking, people usually take lots of photographs. Those pictures are keepsakes, tracking a family's progress through the years.


This year a group, called Moms United to End the War on Drugs, wants families to take different kinds of photographs -- of empty seats at the table.

Those photos are meant to document the family members absent because they are in prison, they are on the streets, or have died as a result of their connection or addiction to illegal drugs.

Gretchen Burns Bergman, executive director and co-founder of A New PATH and Moms United To End The War on Drugs, told KPBS the goal is to end America's war on illegal drugs.

"My son was born in 1971, the same year that President Nixon declared war on drugs," she said. "And since that time it's been really devastating, not just to families but to our whole community in terms of loss of life, loss of liberty, we're stigmatizing and criminalizing people who use drugs or have addictive illness like my sons do."

Bergman said her older son was arrested for possession of marijuana 20 years ago, which she said started a 10-year cycle in and out of the prison system. She said her younger son has also been missing from family dinners because of stigma within her family.