One Mother Explains How Her Sons' Addiction Brought Her to Anti-Drug-War Activism

Gretchen Burns Bergman is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment and Healing), and a lead organizer of Moms United to End the War on Drugs.  She works to reduce the stigma associated with addiction, and advocate for compassionate, therapeutic drug policies. To provide mothers with a stake in their children’s recovery, MomsUnited released a Mothers' Bill of Rights (below) on May 2nd, following the document with a week of action across the country. 

What does Mother's Day mean to you?

This mother's day will be a day of blessings for me, as both of my [37 and 42-year-old] sons are alive and in recovery. They are survivors. On mother's day, I reflect on the joys of early motherhood, as well as the painful journey that my family has gone through for decades.

My sons' lives were detoured by addictive illness and damaged by a punitive criminal justice system that stigmatizes and criminalizes people who use drugs.

For so many mothers, whose sons or daughters are locked behind bars for drug offenses, this is a day of emptiness and sadness. I have experienced many mother's days like this, when my son was behind bars because of non-violent drug offenses.

My heart goes out to countless mothers whose children have been removed from them in the name of the war on drugs. I weep for mothers across the nation who have lost a child to accidental overdose. They will never get that precious phone call on mother's day.

Why did you release a Bill of Rights for mothers?

It shouldn't be necessary to declare a Mothers United Bill of Rights, but because of the war on drugs, it is. A mother's inherent and intrinsic rights to parent and protect her offspring have been eroded by punitive criminal justice policies. Mothers can no longer be silent. We must lead the way in demanding health-oriented solutions, for the sake of our children and future generations.

Can you describe your journey?

I always tell people that if my child had diabetes or muscular dystrophy, I would be learning everything about their disease.  And I realized that it was a disease, because both of my children experimented when they were about 13, apparently -- of course, I didn’t know it then -- and they weren’t some of those who could walk away.  They got hooked.  

So the more you learn, the more you understand that addiction is a disease, and it’s treatable. In my case, when my son was arrested at 20 years old for possession of marijuana, he got involved in the criminal justice system for 11 years of his life, cycling in and out of prison and never having those core issues addressed. I realized that this was just wrong.

We’re talking now about people who have addictive illness and can’t get out of it, and that was my experience.  Others don’t have an addictive illness. Maybe they just got caught, and so many of their opportunities were taken away without second chances.

Do you think that most mothers with children struggling with addiction feel the same way? We always hear about parents advocating for harsher drug laws to keep their kids safe.

I think that the mothers are the silent majority right now.  So many of us know that we did the best we could raising our kids. Mothers know what addictive illness looks like and feels like. They just need to be given permission to speak out, because they’re also afraid of being blamed.

Here’s one that I used to love.  People used to say, “Well, if you only had your kids in sports and extracurricular activities...” My kids were in everything!  From tennis to soccer to Little League -- you name it -- they did it.  But people like simplistic answers.  They think that because everything worked out well for them in their life, that you must have done something wrong in parenting this child who failed to excel.

Did you see that happen a lot -- people blaming you you for your sons' illness?

In the beginning they did, and I think that’s one of the biggest successes of the new PATH, that we’ve been able to change that framework.  We’ve been able to spread an image of compassionate, intelligent, well-spoken parents that feel this way.  I think that that’s why we’ve been able to garner so much support in the community.

Anti-drug-war messaging from moms seems to really resonate with people who might not otherwise pay attention to drug policy reform. Why do you think that is?

One of the real powerful issues is that moms are demanding to have their voices.  We’re programmed to care and nurture for our children, and that doesn’t end when they turn 18.  That’s pretty much for life.  We care about our kids, we try to educate them, keep them safe, so I think that’s why it resonates with people  -- you bring back that mom’s word.

But I will say that, for a while, moms lost their voice.  They lost their voice because there were labels being hurled at them -- like  “co-dependent” and “enabler.” I think that moms are reclaiming their voice because they’re shaking off the shame, and they’re shaking off the stigma.  They’re saying, “What I care about most is my children, my family, my community. And that’s why I’m acting this way.”


The Moms and Cops partnership between Moms United and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) appears to have made some waves as well. Can you speak to that?

So many of us have come to look at police as sort of being our enemies because they’re locking our kids up for using drugs.  My two sons have an addictive illness, so jail was the wrong way to treat a non-violent drug offender.  

I know a lot of moms in California who feel that they made a mistake when they did the “tough love” thing and called the police, thinking that they were going to get help to get their kids into treatment, or stop them from killing themselves. Instead, their kids ended up behind bars -- some for 5 years to life because of the three strikes policy in California.  

Rather than being our friend -- the friendly policemen who are going to help your kids get home from school safely -- police turned into the people, the conduit, to ruin your child’s life.

When I met Neill Franklin, the executive director of LEAP, I just thought, this is so powerful. It is showing that we -- cops and moms -- most people who would not necessarily be saying “Legalize marijuana” or “decriminalize all drugs,” have come to the same place and are partnering together to say, “No more drug war.”

For me, that’s why it’s so powerful and poignant, and I think when we started talking about the campaign, we all got excited about the power of it as well.

What kind of legislation do you look for to protect children?

There are many numbers of harm reduction strategies.  In the days when you couldn’t say “harm reduction,” they were all thinking about needle exchange.  Needle exchange -- just look what it’s done!  In terms of health, it’s reduced HIV and Hepatitis C. And still, people would say “well, you’re just making it easier for them to use drugs.”

And as the mother of two sons who use needles to use drugs, that was an education process for me, too.  But yes, of course, I’d rather them use a clean needle than lose their life to HIV.

My son’s on methadone maintenance and has been for 8 years and he’s in long term recovery, and works as an alcohol and drugs counselor.  That’s stigmatized, too. But it’s certainly harm reduction.

The Good Samaritan Law is what floors me -- why we can’t pass it in every state, why it’s not just a given.  This is about saving somebody’s life, in the critical time, having immunity so you can make the 9/11 call to save a person’s life without being locked-up for drugs. That is the one I have the most difficulty understanding -- why anybody would be opposed to it.  

A lot of people don’t understand how harshly parents who are drug users are punished. Aren’t pregnant, incarcerated women often shackled to beds while giving birth in prison?

In California, we tried to pass an Anti-Shackle Bill, but it didn’t pass.  What, like somebody who is giving birth is going to escape!? I don’t know, that one seems...there’s just so much that’s cruel and inhumane.  How far do we go in our quest to “hold people accountable” for their mistakes?

They’re never held accountable anyway, they never get it.  My son is punished for using drugs but it’s really done nothing but hurl insults at him.  He knows he’s got to quit using drugs and he already hates himself enough -- I’m using my second son as this example -- that he can’t seem to get out of this cycle. I can’t even tell you the court costs on top of everything else he was trying to deal with in very early sobriety. It’s just incomprehensible, the obstacles that are hurled at an addict.

What has worked for your sons?  You said one of them is taking methadone --  what about your other son?

He’s very new to recovery, he’s got a little over a month again and he’s been through countless treatment programs. I believe that because he’s still alive, there’s still hope. I think that each treatment program he’s been to has given him a tool.  They all work, to a certain extent. It’s chronic relapsing disorder, and  different people have all these different journeys

I think one day, if he can stay alive, he’s going to put all the pieces of the puzzle together and be able to do this. Each time he’s had an opportunity to learn more about his disease, that works.  Each time he has a clear mind to try to cope with his disease, that works.  But he hasn’t put the pieces of the puzzle together -- yet.

The Mom's Bill of Rights is a project of MomsUnited/A New PATH.

We declare and assert these basic rights for all mothers:

1. We have the right to nurture our offspring, and to advocate for their care and safety.

2. We have the right to be free from the shame and stigma caused by negative labels encumbering our children who suffer from addictive disorders and the parents who raise them.

3. We have the parental right to policies and practices that recognize addiction as a disease in need of treatment, rather than a willful behavior to be criminalized.

4. We have the right to be represented by informed policymakers who work to reduce the barriers to education, housing and employment opportunities that our sons and daughters encounter after they have been arrested for drug possession.

5. We have the right to honest, accurate, safety-first drug education in our schools, rather than scare tactics.

6. We have the right to respectful, nondiscriminatory harm reduction strategies that honestly address and treat the chronic relapsing disease of addiction, and to policies that are informed by and consistent with scientific research, compassion and reason.

7. We have the right to life-saving overdose prevention and intervention strategies, which should not be impeded or pre-empted by criminal justice policies of arrest and incarceration.

8. We have the constitutional right to protect our homes and families from the unreasonable search and seizure tactics of drug “warriors”.

9. We have the right to communities where our children can live, learn and play without fear of drug war violence.

10. We have the right to have our roles as parents protected and supported, rather than disregarded and terminated by incarceration for nonviolent drug offenses.

11. We have the right to protect the future of all our children from a drug war which is waged predominantly against families, as well as communities of color and poverty.

12. We have the right to speak out publicly to end the war on drugs, because of the damage it has done to our communities, for the sake of our children and future generations.

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