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Grieving Mothers Say Punitive New Drug Laws Won’t Solve the Overdose Crisis

Mothers who lost loved ones are speaking out against a wave of harsh anti-drug legislation that has swept the US.

Friends and family members of people who have died from overdoses in Broome County gather for an annual memorial, August 19, 2023, in downtown Binghamton, New York.

Ahead of Mother’s Day, grieving moms who lost their children to drug overdose are warning that the wave of punitive anti-drug legislation sweeping the country would not have prevented the deaths of their loved ones. In fact, they say, adopting harsh new laws like these only makes the spiraling public health crisis worse by further criminalizing people living with substance abuse disorders.

As parents-turned-activists, they find themselves on one side of an extremely emotional debate over how the government should respond to an increase in overdose deaths linked to the rise of the opioid fentanyl and other potent synthetic drugs. As sensational myths about fentanyl have gone viral, these mothers learned firsthand how fear and stigma around the drug can be deadly.

Tamara Olt became an advocate for grieving parents and policy change after her 16-year-old son Josh died of an overdose while hiding his addiction and using drugs while alone. Along with an international coalition of moms, Olt is speaking out against state and federal legislation that mandates lengthy prison sentences for fentanyl possession and makes supplying drugs that cause a fatal overdose a serious felony, even if the overdose occurred by accident as friends shared drugs socially.

In Tennessee, one teenager was recently charged with murder after she shared drugs with two friends and was the only one to survive an accidental overdose after being rushed to the hospital. Now on the books in one form or another in 31 states, Olt said so-called drug-induced homicide laws make people terrified to call 911 when a friend is in trouble, because doing so could mean years of incarceration.

“These laws will not deter drug use and will actually increase deaths from overdose because people will be less likely to call for help,” Olt told reporters on Wednesday. “We have to take a step back and look at what works to save laws, using evidence-based practices.”

Over the past decade, illicit drug markets shifted toward stronger products that could fit in smaller packaging as law enforcement cracked down on painkiller prescribing and international heroin smuggling. Despite billions of dollars spent by Congress and huge amounts of drugs seized by Border Patrol and police, the number of fatal overdoses has continued to grow as people living with addiction struggle to access health care and other supports.

Today, families across the political and cultural spectrum have lost loved ones to overdose, and it’s not uncommon for grief to morph into activism. However, deeply personal stories of love and loss can be leveraged by law enforcement lobbyists and self-serving politicians to push for polices that are not backed by evidence, according to activist and mom Susan Ousterman. Ousterman founded the Vilomah Memorial Foundation after her 24-year-old son Tyler died of addiction-related complications in 2020.

Ousterman believes that Tyler spiraled deeper into addiction after losing a close friend to overdose — and then living in fear that he would be arrested and incarcerated in connection to his friend’s death under Pennsylvania’s controversial drug-induced homicide law.

“I understand that parents are angry, but pushing for harsher penalties is only going to make it worse,” Ousterman told reporters on Wednesday.

Amid Republican fearmongering that falsely blames immigrants for the uptick in U.S. drug overdoses (a set of lies on which former President Donald Trump is actively campaigning), hundreds of fentanyl crime bills were introduced states across the country in 2022. Under pressure from police and angry parents, Virginia lawmakers codified fentanyl as “a weapon of terrorism.” In Iowa, the sale or manufacture of less than five grams of fentanyl — about the weight of five paper clips — is now punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Policy makers are backsliding after years of progress toward approaching addiction as a public health issue rather than as a criminal one.

Proponents of such bills say they are meant to target drug traffickers, but experts point out that many low-level drug sellers are living with substance use disorders themselves. Ousterman said local police and aggressive prosecutors usually arrest low-level drug sellers, whom they see as “low hanging fruit,” rather than targeting the international drug traffickers who actually supply the drugs.

This strategy ends up putting people in need of compassion and health care behind bars instead. In June of 2023, the Harvard School of Health and Medicine found that overdoses actually increase in local areas when sellers are busted by police, because dependent users must turn to unreliable sources or get sick from withdrawal symptoms that seriously interrupt daily life.

“These are not cartel members, they are not drug dealers, they are friends … they don’t want to see their friends get sick” from withdrawals, Ousterman said, adding that people living with addiction can face potentially deadly barriers to health care when providers view them as “criminals” rather than patients.

Olt and Ousterman said policy makers are backsliding after years of progress toward approaching addiction as a public health issue rather than as a criminal one.

In some jurisdictions, the years of progress that preceded the current wave of anti-drug legislation took the form of relaxing penalties for simple possession. Policy makers pushed for that change due to the knowledge that arresting and jailing people massively increases their risk for overdose. Despite Republican pushback, the Biden administration announced in 2021 historic investments in certain harm reduction services that are championed by the grieving mothers and their allies. Last year, Congress finally removed a major legal barrier to crucial opioid addiction medication.

The current disparities in access to addiction treatment are particularly stark in lower-income rural areas and Black and Indigenous communities. For example, from 2019 to 2020, Black men died of drug overdose at a rate seven times higher than white men.

Mothers and other advocates fought for years to pass 911 Good Samaritan laws in at least 39 states that provide legal immunity for those who call for help during an overdose. Combined with distribution of naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal drug, Good Samaritan laws are shown to reduce overdose deaths.

However, the current wave of drug-induced homicide laws that have been adopted by at least 31 states effectively render those Good Samaritan laws moot and provide extremely wide latitude for local prosecutors.

“The private prison lobby is pushing these harsher penalties … and we need more parents in front of legislators,” Ousterman said.

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