As parents who saw firsthand how the criminal justice system has treated drug users, they have used their experience to make change—from communities to the policy level.
In 1999, three parents affected by their children’s drug use decided they would form a coalition to reform the criminal justice system and bust the stigma surrounding substance use disorder. A New PATH: Parents for Addiction Treatment and Healing was born.
“We’ve come a long way in 20 years,” co-founder Gretchen Bergman told NBC San Diego. “At that time people weren’t talking about it if they had a child with an addictive illness, because of the shame.”
Bergman, Sylvia Liwerant and Tom O’Donnell met at a support group for families. At the time, parents and children struggling with substance use disorder had few options. “We got together, three hurt people, parents like lions who are helping their cubs,” said Liwerant. “We were angry and we were hurt by what was happening to our children. We wanted help. We felt so helpless.”
All of their children had been incarcerated for non-violent offenses. The parents say the punishment did not make sense for what they say is a health issue, not a crime.
In A New PATH’s long history of advocacy, they helped enact policies that aim to pull back punitive approaches to drug use.
In 2000, they helped pass Proposition 36 in California, which allowed eligible non-violent, non-serious offenders to do their time in a treatment program instead of jail or prison. “That was the first real change in drug policy that rippled throughout the United States in terms of policy reform,” said Bergman.
And in 2014, they helped pass Proposition 47, which reduced penalties for most non-violent and non-serious crimes. This gave 10,000 prisoners a chance to get a re-sentencing, according to Ballotpedia.
“We took it upon ourselves to speak out… We started with a lot of passion and by the seat of our pants—not knowing or having any idea it would build and that the need was that large,” said Bergman.
A New PATH has also supported efforts to legalize marijuana. “We are not promoting any drug use at all. The problem is the consequences are worse than the drug itself,” said Bergman, highlighting the difficulty of finding a job or enrolling in school with a felony looming on one’s record.
Expanding access to naloxone, the opioid overdose-reversing drug, was a key issue as well. “Why couldn’t parents who were worried about their children overdosing have that in their medicine cabinet?” said Bergman.
Since A New PATH formed, it has expanded its stigma-fighting and drug policy-reforming efforts to 35 states and 6 countries, according to NBC.
“The awareness we created so that other families don’t have to go through what we went through, I am proud of that,” said Bergman.
“There is still stigma about addiction. But people are understanding it better… and the way I understand addiction, people start using because of the pain they cannot solve,” said Liwerant.
As parents who saw firsthand how the criminal justice system has treated drug users, the group of tireless advocates have used their experience to broadcast their message with the world.
“Don’t leave us out of the conversation. We live with this. We are the primary stakeholders,” said Bergman.