August 23rd, 2016
On August 15, Tina Wells Louden marked the day that her daughter, Ashley, would have turned 28.
“It had been eight years since Ashley started using heroin,” reports the Washington Post, “and three years since it killed her.”
Her mother, who lives in Missouri, took a selfie of her face resting on the urn that holds her daughter’s ashes. She posted it to Facebook with a message:
She got her wish regarding the post going viral. At publication time, over 251,000 people had shared it on Facebook.
It is difficult to imagine something as horrific as losing a child. No one would question Tina Wells Louden’s cause for grief, nor her right to anger. Everyone should understand her desire to blame. The purpose of this post is not to criticize her.
But it is to dispute the narrative that drug dealers are primarily to be blamed and targeted for heroin-related deaths.
We should object to such sentences on humanitarian grounds. We should do so in the knowledge that in most cases, dealers’ customers are making their own choices to buy; that many drug dealers are from poor communities and many struggle with drug problems themselves; that many people who use drugs share them, or buy for friends, making the line between “user” and “dealer” frequently meaningless; that drug dealers, as much as anybody else, come from what Tina Wells Louden refers to as “our families.”
But even if you don’t find such sentences, driven by a desire for revenge, to be inhumane, you ought to acknowledge that they are ineffective—that for every drug dealer locked away, three more will take their place; that many decades of fighting a War on Drugs have failed to reduce the demand for heroin and other drugs.
If Ashley had died from alcohol poisoning, it is unlikely that her mother would have posted this kind of criticism of the person who works at the local liquor store. We need to ask ourselves why that is, what the difference is here—and to remind ourselves that the biggest reason heroin is illegal while alcohol is not is racism.
If we want to get angry about drug-related deaths—and we should—the targets of our anger should be rather different.
Let’s get angry that the prohibition of heroin and other drugs means that people who use them—and remember, however hard we try, we can’t stop large numbers of people from using them—have zero guarantees regarding the identity, purity and dosage of what they buy, jeopardizing their safety.
Let’s get angry that many basic services that have been proven to keep people who use drugs safer are inadequately provided or not provided at all in the US. Needle exchanges to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and other blood-borne diseases are still not as widespread or well funded as they should be. Naloxone, the lifesaving overdose reversal drug, is still not available everywhere it should be. Methadone and burprenorphine, maintenance drugs that hugely reduce mortality, are inexplicably restricted. Heroin-assisted treatment and supervised injection facilities, unequivocally successful at reducing deaths among heroin users in places like Switzerland and Canada, are still banned.
Let’s get really angry at the hypocrisy of lawmakers who wring their hands at heroin-related deaths, yet block or fail to back interventions that are demonstrated to work—either because their misguided ideology baulks at accepting the reality of continuing drug use, or because they’re afraid that their constituents will feel that way. (For good measure, the inequalities, poverty and other social factors that often drive addiction are significantly influenced by politicians, too.)
Tina Wells Louden’s post is understandable. But if only a quarter of a million people could have been encouraged to look at the real culprits behind the bereavements of so many people like her.