Mother’s Day just passed and I can’t help recalling those times when my grown-up children were those adorable babies. I cherish those minutes that I held them high in the air and they made me laugh because they laughed — and my heart was so overflowing with love that it ached.

I had two perfect sons like that. The eldest came with built-in boundaries; he didn’t think it was fun to run against a red light. My other son craved the excitement of taking chances; no staying in a playpen for him.

The oldest, now 57, is a careful, creative man who knows how to care for himself, those he loves, and the world. 

His younger brother died from heroin addiction at the age of 37. 

My son’s lifetime struggle with addiction began in the seventh grade in our nice suburban middle school. Like many others who longed to be cool, he experimented with drugs, happy that he could outsmart “dumb” laws and parents who just didn’t get it. These kids still did well in school, and called home if they were going to be late, thinking that good grades and obeying basic parental rules would protect them. They didn’t understand that experimenting with drugs is a choice, but addiction is not.

By the time Josh was 14 he had found heroin, and we were advised to get him out of town to a therapeutic milieu. In middle- and upper-class families, addictions were becoming common, and psychiatrists had few if any referrals to offer. We found a newly-established addiction center in Vermont that seemed like it could help him. He ran away from treatment, saying he wanted to be at home.

From then on his story is not unusual. He went from shooting hoops in the suburbs to shooting heroin in the ghetto. His journey took him from his bar mitzvah to the ultimate humiliation — incarceration at San Quentin for petty thievery. I think the judge got tired of him and tried to teach him a lesson without considering that prison is a place to learn more about crime, and that prisoners emerge with their self-image and possibilities for employability destroyed.

Josh spent 24 years in and out of rehab facilities and jails, experiencing alternating torment and hope. Throughout his nightmare he maintained strong ties with our family, and with many of his friends, all of us waiting for a drug-free Josh to appear. When he was in recovery, we gathered new strengths.

Finally, the disease left him exhausted and hopeless, and like many people, he turned to self-medication. At 37, while clean and sober, he reached for the only thing he could think of that gave him pleasure and relief: more heroin. He saw no other way out.

Josh’s journey taught me that criminalization is not the answer to addiction. It doesn’t prevent drug use, and it is not cost-effective. The war on drugs is a losing solution for both addicts and for society. Criminalization only adds to the profits and precipitates the atrocities of the international traders. The dollars spent on non-violent offenders in the criminal justice system could be much more effective if used for addiction research and treatment in the public health system. Addiction is a disease, and should be treated with dignity.

It’s the 21st century and we now understand that most mental illness starts with a chemical imbalance, and that people do not contract leprosy by committing sins. I believe that medical advances will soon be able to help people manage addictions. That day will come sooner with resources directed toward treatment, rather than criminalization. 

Arthur Schopenhauer understood this phenomena when he said, “All truth passes through three stages: First it is ridiculed. Second it is violently opposed. Third it is accepted as being self evident.”

Let’s hope we are nearing the third stage.

Rita Lowenthal is the author of “One Way Ticket: Our Son’s Addiction to Heroin,” and a member of A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment and Healing), a nonprofit organization that works to reduce the stigma associated with addictive illness through education and compassionate support, and to advocate for therapeutic rather than punitive drug policies. The Moms United to End the War on Drugs national campaign is a project of a New PATH — www.anewpathsite.org.

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