I was in the 2nd grade and suddenly in a new school, staying with my aunt and looking forward to my mom picking me up and taking me back home. Perpetually distracted, the only thing I can remember from that school day was the classroom teacher adamantly explaining to the class that because her name was Ms. Blue every one of us should know how to spell B-L-U-E.
At the end of the school day, I watched as other children got on the school bus and stood out of the way of the flow of traffic on to yellow school buses. They all knew where they were going. Knew that they were going home. Knew that parents would be waiting for them on the other side of that door. They knew familiar people, spaces, routines that included homework, dinners made, and bedtime. I only knew that kind of steadiness from TV shows and storybooks.
The lines of children getting on to the school buses is beginning to thin as the buses pull off one by one.
Suddenly a teacher comes up to me, maybe the same one from the class earlier, Ms. B-L-U-E and says, "Your mom can't pick you up today.... she's in the hospital. You're going to go home with..."
The words knocking me off my feet and I fall back into the bushes behind me. The swift and immediate reaction causes confusion from everyone around me. On the outside it looks like a little girl having a tantrum: crying and flailing, refusing to stand. But at that moment I just feel undone. It's all just too much.
I know what it means when my mother is rushed to the hospital. I know that she is sick but not in the ways that anyone will talk about. I've seen her rushed to the hospital. I don't know the words for it. I don't know anything about diagnoses but I know that it all begins on the other side a tiny glass pipe, heavy smoke filling our house. I know what drugs do. I know we're supposed to say "no". I've seen the commercials with addicts and dealers who look like monsters; they look nothing like my parents. They are not monsters, at least not to me. But my mommy can't say no and sometimes collapses under the pressure of what ever it does to her body and she has come close to death more times than I can handle.
So I lay on the ground crushed up against this stupid bush with pointy little leaves and stems pressing into the back of legs and refuse to move. I just can't take it any more. No one seems to get it. They insist that I get up. They think I'm being completely unreasonable and after a while I start to think that maybe I am overreacting but my anger is all that I have right now.
I'm sent home with a neighbor to wait for my aunt to pick me up. They are a nice family with a nice home. The parents are kind. They cook dinner. Their house feels so different. I don't quite understand what makes it different. It feels like there is so much more air and light in their rooms. They are nice to me. They give me space. After a while the subtly and lightness of this family, so different from mines, just made me angry so I go and wait outside for my aunt to come. I watch the sun set while standing on the sidewalk. I am a one-girl protest, of what, I cannot name.
This week the U.N General Assembly holds its first special session on global drug policy since 1998. While much has changed in the last 18 years still so much remains the same. One thousand world leaders can now agree that the "War on Drugs" has been a failure. That a militarized punitive approach to drug addiction and drug sales has produced wide spread violence, and the destruction of communities and families.
The criminalization of families and communities has created generational harm that reproduces the very environments of trauma, grief, and pain that addiction thrives in. Still, the U.N General Assembly sustains the same empty mission statement of more than 18 years ago: "to promote a world free of drug abuse" and to reduce the production of illicit drugs. Such language reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of why people use drugs.
I was born in the 1980s, the child of drug addicts who were hunted by law enforcement and given jail time when they needed rehabilitation. I was born into an era that shamed people into the shadows and into silence and told us that addiction was a moral failure of a dangerous group of people who needed to be locked away.
I live with the wounds left behind after 30 years of devastating drug policies. I see the way it shows up in my relationships and in my physical health. I sit across the dinner table at holidays surrounded by this carnage. The people that I love are still suffering and dying in the streets of Philadelphia as the U.S government turns its attention to compassionately healing the rural and suburban white communities now hit by heroin and prescription drug deaths.
As the U.N focuses on eliminating the production of illicit drugs they seem to be oblivious to the ways legal, prescribed drugs are fueling the rates of addiction around the world. The biggest drug dealers in the U.S are licensed medical physicians in partnership with pharmaceutical companies.
International meetings of world leaders and signed letters with a unified message are respectable and dignified ways to call out the failure of the global drug war. But if you truly want to understand the devastation that this global war on drugs has wrought than talk to the children of addicts and our more than 1.5 million family members arrested for drug offenses.
In the U.S today, there are 2.7 million children with parents behind bars. Talk to us and let us take you on a walk through our neighborhoods, into our homes and show you why it is so urgent that we stop criminalizing addiction and drugs. We are losing people everyday and living with the long-term health consequences of being exposed to incarceration and addiction. According to the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study we are significantly more likely to experience depression, suicidal ideation, and a host of stress related health conditions.
I didn't lose my mother that day when I was in the 2nd grade. I held her and supported her for another 25 years through addiction and deteriorating physical and mental health. I kept her secrets because we both held the shame of what it means to be Black, a mother, and a drug addict living in this country. Then on June 18, 2015 she died of drug overdose and I knew that it was time for me tell our story because I am still as angry as I was that day in 2nd grade, the only difference now is I know why I'm protesting.