O Mother, Where Art Thou? Mothers Still Frequently Incarcerated For Nonviolent Cannabis-Related Crimes

Oftentimes, discussion around policing tactics involves people of color, particularly black men — and rightfully so, given how violently and unfairly they’re targeted by cops in the United States, according to The Washington Post’s somber database Fatal Force. However, that doesn’t mean women and non-binary people are not harmed by racist, classist policing. Particularly mothers, who are often excluded from and unfairly targeted by cannabis reform.

Many moms, who have been arrested for nonviolent cannabis-related offenses, are kept in local prisons and separated from their families because they simply can’t post bail, which can be just a few hundred dollars. However, each spring, community bail funds all over the country (such as in Generosity in Philadelphia, Southerners On New Ground in Durham, and Brooklyn Community Bail Fund) celebrates moms — including those who have been harmed by the War on Drugs — by fundraising for their bails through National Black Mama’s Bail Out Day, taking place this Mother’s Day.

According to the National Bail Out website:

National Black Mama’s Bail Out Day will give incarcerated mothers an opportunity to spend Mother’s Day with their families and build community through gatherings that highlight the impact of inhumane and destructive bail practices on our communities!
We will bail out mama’s in all of our varieties. Queer, trans, young, elder, and immigrant.

“Mothers are a powerful, and often overlooked, force for cannabis legalization,” Jenn Lauder, founder of pot and parenting newsletter Splimm, tells Big Buds. “We’re frequently used to advance the oppositions’ agenda — what’s more compelling than a mother who’s just trying to think of the children? — and unduly stigmatized for our consumption, no matter how responsible or intentional we are. This is especially true for pregnant women, whose bodies and choices are perpetually scrutinized while their agency is diminished or denied. Pregnant women and mothers have a stake in cannabis legalization.”

Indeed, two-thirds of all women in prison — a majority of whom are black and Latina — have been charged with nonviolent drug offenses, according to data provided by the Drug Policy Alliance. Likewise, mothers make up the majority — more than three quarters — of women behind bars in the United States, and are often the sole caregiver in the family.

Once moms finally re-enter their communities, they are barred from public assistance, such as food stamps and financial aid for college, which further increases their entire family’s vulnerability to systemic poverty. (Of course, they’re also barred from entering the cannabis industry due to their drug conviction.)

But moms don’t just experience the carceral system when they themselves are convicted and sentenced.

Gretchen Burns Bergman, lead organizer of the international organization Moms United to End the War on Drugs, began working in drug policy reform after a decade-long experience with the carceral system. Her son was arrested for cannabis possession when he was 20 years old, which she said “sparked 11 years of cycling through the criminal justice system, in and out of prison, for nonviolent possession charges and relapse.”

Burns Bergman continues, “The cannabis community should support our efforts to end a war that is not really waged against drugs, but against people. … Against our own sons and daughters and brothers and sisters.

“Moms United to End the War on Drugs strongly advocates for legalization of marijuana and we work towards decriminalization of all drugs, because substance-use disorders should be handled as a public health [issue] rather than a criminal justice issue.”

Recently, Moms United launched the #ListenToMom/#EscuchaMamá campaign, which calls for:

  • Decriminalization of children.
  • Training for healthcare professionals in evidence-based addiction treatments.
  • Better coordinated governmental responses to the overdose crisis.
  • Drug policy reform, including drug decriminalization for personal use.
  • Compassionate education around substance use.
  • Increased support for moms impacted by the War on Drugs (particularly moms of the disappeared in Mexico and indigenous women disproportionately affected in Canada).
  • Promoting maternal values.
  • Trauma support for those left behind.

“We need more research into the positive effects of cannabis as well,” Burns Bergman notes. “We must think openly and nonjudgmentally. Please join moms in demanding harm reduction strategies, rather than marginalizing, punitive prohibitionist policies.”

Note: The author has previously donated the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund.

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