March 21, 2019 

By Susan Burton 


Substance abuse is not a crime in the United States. Possession of certain substances is. When drug users are arrested, convicted and imprisoned for drug-related crimes, they rarely receive treatment, mental health services or other supports that could help them address their substance abuse issues. Instead, many end up in the revolving door of our criminal justice system with no way out.


In 1982 my five-year-old son was killed by a car driven by an off-duty police officer. Therapy and other support services were non-existent in my impoverished South L.A. neighborhood, so I turned to crack to deal with the pain. Over the next two decades, I found myself in and out of prison six times for drug-related felonies. During those incarcerations, I never once received help for my substance abuse, let alone the trauma I was trying to self-medicate. I was just another statistic; I was just a Black woman seen by society as a crackhead not worth saving.


I did eventually get the help I needed and have since dedicated my life to assisting and advocating for other women trapped in this vicious cycle. In 1998, I founded A New Way of Life Reentry Project to help women transition from prison life back into their communities. We have reached thousands of women but only systemic change will finally end this destructive merry-go-round that has destroyed too many lives, families and communities.


Women are the fastest growing correctional population nationwide, and drug possession offenses are a significant driver of that. Simple possession for personal use is the single most arrested offense in the U.S., with 1.4 million people arrested each year. A drug conviction can prevent a person from getting a job or finding housing, restrict access to their children, and even limit their ability to get health care services or food stamps.


Add to that drug laws that have long served as an excuse for the over-policing of Black communities. Black people use drugs at the same rates as or even less than white people, yet they are arrested nearly three times as often for that use. Our communities have been taken over by “tough on crime” possession laws that are not helping us but further hurting us.


Right now, there is a 70-year-old Black grandmother named Geneva Cooley sitting in an Alabama prison. She was convicted of a non-violent drug felony (carrying drugs on a train) and sentenced to 999 years. The $70,000 per year it costs taxpayers to keep her in prison is not going to provide education, job training or social services for Geneva, or for community members the penal system is trying to “keep safe” from her.


I believe we can do better.


Last year I visited Portugal as part of a delegation of advocates led by the Drug Policy Alliance. In 2001, that country introduced a comprehensive program in response to its own overdose crisis that decriminalized small amounts of drugs for personal use. Since then, overdose deaths, HIV infections, problematic drug use, and incarceration for drug-related offenses have dropped to among the lowest rates in Europe, while the number of people voluntarily entering treatment has dramatically increased.


As I met with public health officials, visited treatment facilities, and heard from law enforcement agents, as well as current and former drug users, what struck me most was the humanity of this approach. The focus is on supporting people and their health instead of demonizing the illness and punishing the related behavior. 


Our approach in the U.S. not only seems barbaric in contrast, but it is clearly not working. We need put an end to the mass arrests, harsh sentencing, and restricted access to affordable treatment and health care, and start focusing on what matters: helping people.


We have so much potential within each of our communities: why are we throwing lives away instead of working on ways to fix them? When one of us receives the help we need, we can all benefit from that person’s contributions to our lives.


Susan Burton is the executive director of A New Way of Life Reentry Project and author of Becoming Ms. Burton. Learn more about Susan’s experience in Portugal at:

Category: Opinion