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For Women Only Tina Thomas has been caught up in the American war on drugs.

In many respects, she fits the common profile of a woman doing time for a drug-related offense. Her crimes have ranged from possession to check forgery and theft, including an arrest for trying to steal a $64 comforter from WalMart. Eventually sentenced to a two-year state prison term, Thomas admits that she committed her crimes to feed the “800-pound gorilla on my back that I just hadn’t been able to shake.”

Thomas is part of an alarming statistical trend and a modern-day American phenome- non . For starters, she is one of half a million people (roughly one-fourth of the total prison population) locked up on drug-related charges. Thomas is also an inmate in a state that locks up women at one of the highest per capita rates -- 129 per 100,000 residents, a figure that is right behind Texas, the federal system and California. Oklahoma’s imprisonment of women rose a stunning 1,237 percent from 1997 to 2004.

Drug addiction is what led Thomas down the river to prison, she admits freely. What’s a bit more unusual about her is that she holds a medical doctorate from the University of Illinois, and was a practicing neurologist and professor at a teaching hospital. She stood out in her field to such a degree that her colleagues felt uncomfortable around here, particularly after she disclosed she was a lesbian. What Thomas didn’t disclose, however, was an early childhood marred by incest, the lingering pain from which she used cocaine as an escape. Unfortunately, her cocaine use took a painful turn into a full-blown crack addiction.

Thomas and other women have had the misfortune of being sucked into what the federal government calls the “war on drugs.”  We have our own “drug czar,” who sits atop the massive Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).  President Nixon started this war in 1969, and President Reagan kicked it into high gear. It’s been a full-throttle battle since, even through the Clinton years.

By 1980, the number of drug-related arrests stood at 581,000. Just 10 years later, that number had nearly doubled to 1,090,000.

In 2005, the FBI reported that law enforcement officers made more arrests for drug-abuse violations (1.8 million) than for any other offense.

One of the most surprising facts about these figures, as far as police are concerned, is the drug of choice: marijuana. Cannabis is classified as a Schedule I drug, which means that it is one of the most dangerous drugs imaginable.

Cocaine, on the other hand, a leading cause of overdose deaths, is classified as a Schedule II. So is PCP. Go figure.

In 2005, nearly 43 percent of all drug arrests were for cannabis possession (37.7 percent) or “sales and manufacture” (4.3 percent). That’s millions of arrests and billions of dollars -- and amounts to a lot of misery and money down the drain.

In 2008, the ONDCP drug-war budget will reach a record $12.9 billion, with $8 billion of this funding being funneled into law enforcement. Bear in mind that these are only the official numbers. Many criminal justice experts point out that the figure doesn’t incorporate the costs of incarcerating people sentenced for drug offenses. The real expenditure, including the costs of imprisonment, comes close to $22 billion, according to an analysis by the drug policy newsletter, Drug War Chronicle.

We’re not getting much of a bang for these big bucks. Unintentional drug overdoses have become the second-most common form of accidental death after car crashes. While the government increases funding for anti-drug missions in Colombia and in Afghanistan by tens of millions every year, federal allocations to the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention and the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment are being cut by $32 million in 2008.

A 2006 Government Accountability Office report revealed that our $1.4 billion antidrug media blitz wasn’t working, either. And it wasn’t the first organization to note this. In 2003, the White House Office of Management and Budget disclosed that it found these ads lacking in any demonstrable success.

What’s worse, the people who need help aren’t getting it. In the rest of the Western world, assistance with drug and alcohol problems is widely accessible. Why?  They predominantly view heavy drug use or full-blown addiction as public health issues, not behavioral issues subject to prosecution  (except in cases involving other criminal activity).

In the United States, however, rehabilitation and counseling are difficult to access without money. The waiting lists for free or subsidized rehabilitation programs can run from a few months to a couple of years even in progressive cities like San Francisco or Seattle.

Most American women, as well as men, have used some form of intoxicant (legal or illegal) during their lives, and half of all women ages 15 to 54 admit to having used illegal drugs specifically.

An estimated 22 million Americans are currently dependent on alcohol, drugs or both, although the real number is likely to be much higher, particularly as the figure does not take into account the 71.5 million people age 12 and up who use tobacco -- many of whom are likely addicted to nicotine.

Anyone who has ever smoked cigarettes habitually can relate to what even heroin and other hard-drug users have told me on several occasions -- that nicotine is the most addictive drug they have ever taken, and the hardest substance to quit.  (Small wonder that the tobacco ban in many prisons has started a fierce black market, where a single cigarette can cost between $5 and $10.)

Regardless of whether they are caught, more than 9 million women each year use illicit drugs, and another 3.7 million use prescription drugs without medical authorization.

One such woman, Danielle Pascu, 29, got hooked on prescription drugs after the birth of her daughter. At first she was grateful for the prescribed Vicodin that got her though the lingering pain from a caesarean section and untreated postpartum depression.

But it didn’t take Pascu long to develop a full-blown habit, where she was eventually falsifying her prescriptions in order to get more. Pascu had no criminal record, had never used drugs before and was generally unaware of the risks involved. These days, Pascu is serving nearly three years in the sun-baked and dilapidated Arizona State Prison Complex in Perryville.

At this point, drug violations and property offenses account for a majority (59 percent) of females in state prison. By comparison, men in both of these offense categories add up to just 39.5 percent. Meanwhile, in federal prison, women and men convicted of drug offenses constitute nearly 60 percent of inmates.

Tina Thomas knows that she has a quadruple strike to overcome. She’s a black female with a former cocaine addiction, in a state that prefers to lock people up for substance abuse and that will deprive her of public assistance when she gets out. She now faces a lifetime ban on federal benefits, including contracts, licenses and grants.

As a drug offender, Thomas won’t be able to get Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) if she should ever need it. Food assistance, higher-education funding and even income tax deductions for pursuing a college degree are all yanked away from most felony drug offenders.

Yet nearly every other category of ex-offender -- including sex offenders, murderers, arsonists and perpetrators of domestic violence -- is eligible for these benefits. And, as if all this isn’t bad enough, Thomas will find that even getting a job will be difficult, because she must report herself as an ex-felon.

I’m often asked whether African Americans might just be using drugs more than any other group of people. My response is always met with disbelief until I prove it with the government’s own health statistics: African Americans constitute only 15 percent of drug users nationwide.

FBI data, at first glance, appears to show Euro-Americans bearing the brunt of drug-related arrests. Numerically speaking, they do, in that they are still the majority of the U.S. population. But a closer look reveals something else: African Americans are arrested at three times the rate of their demographic representation.

Marc Mauer, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Sentencing Project, asks the very pertinent question of whether police are arresting crack and cocaine users in general, or specifically going into communities of color and lower-income neighborhoods, where some people are using drugs and engaging in the street trade.

“Conducting drug arrests in minority neighborhoods does have advantages for law enforcement,” writes Mauer in his 2006 book, Race to Incarcerate. “First, it is far easier to make arrests in such areas, since drug dealing is more likely to take place in open-air drug markets. In contrast, drug dealing is suburban neighborhoods almost invariably takes place behind closed doors and is therefore not readily identifiable to passing police.”

This is a crucial point. Many substance users are men and women with profes-sional careers. People with middle- to upper-class incomes tend to use their drugs behind doors in nice houses, in well-to-do neighborhoods. They slip under the drug war radar, just as college students do.

A quarter of full-time undergraduate students meet the criteria for substance abuse or dependence, something the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse calls “wasting the best and brightest.”

Yet none of this is anything that the Office of National Drug Control Policy cares to have mentioned, much less examine. It’s just another one of those inconvenient truths.

Silja J.A. Talvi is an investigative journalist and the author of Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System (Seal Press: 2007). Her work has already appeared in many book anthologies, including It's So You (Seal Press, 2007), Prison Nation (Routledge: 2005), Prison Profiteers (The New Press: 2008), and Body Outlaws (Seal Press: 2004). She is a senior editor at In These Times© (2008 All rights reserved.)


I have been an active committed member of The National Organization of Women.

Our objectives are two-fold: 

Host a session exposing the War on Drugs as a stealth attack on women, children, communities of color, and other traditionally under-represented and -served populations.  Many people assume NOW's one and only concern is the protection of reproductive rights, but this is false.  - NOW's mission is to eradicate oppression in all its incarnations.

  National Organization of Women adopted a resolution that opposes the war on drugs and in its stead supports an approach to drug use, abuse, and addiction that fosters compassion, health, and human rights.

 The resolution obligates National Organization Of Women to educate its Leadership and Membership about the unique impact the War on Drugs has on women though the use of the Organizations Site, Resources, Materials, and Literature, as well as through Regular Legislative Updates, especially on Pending Drug Laws and Policies that impact women. 

 Finally, we will work with National Organization Of Women to convene an ad hoc committee to research current drug laws and policies with a     particular impact on women and develop an action plan to be implemented  locally and nationally by National Organization Of Women Chapters and The National Organization Of Women National Action Center.  

Imagine how many more people will now contact their Representatives and Senators as a result of National Organization Of Women Action Alerts on Local and National Drug Laws and Policies.

National Organization of Women is one of the largest organizations in the country, and they have an amazing base of activists and chapters ready to take action to end the Drug War. This is HUGE!  If you are unaware of the impact the War on Drugs has on women, you must log on to the Drug War Facts site on Women:

 - - - A real movement means mobilizing those impacted by bad laws and policies.  Many of us have chosen to choose this fight - which without a doubt is noble - but we must acknowledge those who were left without a choice.  - - Fighting the Drug War is a matter of day-to-day survival for someWe must meet these survivors and strugglers where they are at, developing a mutual relationship of cooperation and support.

All The Best, Scarlett Swerdlow 

*WHEREAS* the incarceration rate of women convicted of low-level drug-related offenses has increased dramatically in the past decade as a result of our nation's relentless "war on drugs." Poor women and women of color have been dispropor-tionately targeted for drug law enforcement and receive long mandatory prison sentences that have little relationship to their actions or culpability.

*WHEREAS* two thirds of women in prison have at least two children who are displaced as a result of their incarceration often forced to live in the care of family, friends, or state sponsored foster care where they may be at increased risk of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse,

*WHEREAS* women's unique patterns of drug abuse and addiction and special treatment needs are inadequately addressed as women often turn to drugs to cope with undiagnosed or untreated mental illness, and/or the trauma of physical or sexual abuse, or other stresses particular to women,

*WHEREAS* the intersection of substance use and pregnancy are increasingly the focus of drug law enforcement,

*WHEREAS* violence against women and other circumstances specific to women's involvement in drug-related activities are often overlooked or ignored in sentenc- ing, such as situations where women who have been emotionally, physically, or sexually abused by boyfriends or husbands involved in drug operations are depen-dent on these men and unlikely to turn to the authorities,

*WHEREAS* after incarceration women continue to bear the stigma and burden of post-conviction sanctions that constitute collateral consequences of incarceration impeding their reintegration into society,including denial of access to public hous-ing, public assistance and food stamps, higher education aid and civic participa-tion, effectively making them second-class citizens.

*THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED*,that the National Organization for Women (NOW)
(iterate its opposition to the War on Drugs and in its stead support an approach to drug abuse and addiction that promotes compassion, public health and human rights; and

*AND THEREFORE BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED*,that NOW educate its member-ship about the harms the "War on Drugs" inflicts on women using the NOW web-
site, NOW materials and literature, and regular NOW legislative
updates, including updates on pending legislation that would negatively impact women; and

BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED*, that an ad hoc committee be convened to research current drug policy that has a particular impact on women and report back to the leadership and membership at the next national conference on a potential action plan to be implemented locally and nationally in conjunction with other organiza-tions currently working towards the same objectives.

Scarlett Swerdlow, Executive Director
1623 Conneticut Avenue NW, Suite 300
Washington, DC 20009
202.293.4414(p) 202.293.8344 (f)


Pregnant women with untreated drug or alcohol problems are getting arrested and jailed for child abuse. ~ Our commentators say this goes against the best medical advice and subverts the intentions of child-endangerment laws.

Editor's Note: The following is a commentary. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the views of Women's eNews.

(WOMENSENEWS) --In recent months, pregnant women have been arrested and jailed in South Carolina,  New Mexico,  Arizona,  Alabama,  Colorado, Georgia, Missouri,  North Dakota  and New Hampshire, among other states, based on the claim ~ that pregnant women can be considered child abusers even before they  have given birth.

Women targeted for these arrests are usually those with untreated drug or alcohol problems.

Other women have also been arrested for endangering the fetus by not getting to the hospital quickly enough on the day of delivery and by not following doctor's advice to get bed rest. One woman who suffered a stillbirth was arrested for murder based on the claim that by exercising her right to medical decision-making and postponing a Caesarean section, she caused the death of her child.

Law enforcement officials often justify the application of criminal laws to pregnant women by claiming that the arrest and imprisonment of pregnant women will pro-tect fetuses and advance children's health.

"We have to look at each fact to determine what the right thing is to do to protect the children," Jerry Peace, a South Carolina prosecutor, said recently.

All leading medical organizations to address this issue including the American Medical  Association, the  American  College  of  Obstetricians  and Gynecologists, the American College of Nurse Midwives, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the March of Dimes has concluded that the problem of alcohol and drug use during pregnancy is a health issue best addressed through education and community-based family treatment, not through the criminal justice system.

As leading public health and child welfare groups have long noted, pregnant women do not experience alcoholism and other drug dependencies because they want to harm their fetuses or because they don't care about their children.  Threats Don't Work!!!

Medical knowledge about addiction and dependency treatment demonstrates that patients do not, and cannot, simply stop their drug use as a result of threats of arrest or other negative consequences. This is one reason why threat-based approaches do not work to stop drug use or to protect children. Such approaches have, in fact, been shown to deter pregnant women not from using drugs but rather from seeking prenatal care and what little drug and alcohol treatment may be available to them.

Health risks to women, fetuses and children whether arising from poverty, inadequate nutrition, exposure to alcohol, drugs or other factors-can be mitigated through prenatal and continuing medical care and counseling.

For this to be effective, however, the woman must trust her health care providers to safeguard her confidences and to stand by her while she attempts to improve her health  even if those efforts are not always successful. Transforming health care encounters into grounds for prosecution  and turning health care professionals into agents of law enforcement destroys this all-important trust.

Not only does the threat of arrest deter women from seeking care that could further both maternal and fetal health  but the imprisonment of pregnant women itself also poses significant dangers.

A 2005 Maryland case belies any claim that arresting pregnant women protects fetuses, children or families. Kari Parsons was imprisoned specifically to protect the health of her fetus.

She was arrested when she was seven months pregnant because a drug test man-dated as part of her probation for shoplifting returned a positive result.Though standard practice is to release people arrested for probation violations on their own recognizance until their later court dates, the judge in Parsons' case sent her to jail, citing his interest in protect-ing the fetus's health.

Yet three weeks later, because of the judge's ostensible concern for the fetus, Parsons' son was born in conditions that put both his and his mother's health and life at risk.

Parsons gave birth to her son alone in a dirty Maryland jail cell furnished only with a toilet and a bed with no sheets. She had been in labor for several hours and had countless times pleaded for help and medical attention. The requests were denied.

The Jennifer Road Detention Center, where she was incarcerated, repeatedly ignored her cries that she was well into labor and needed to go to the hospital. Other inmates, hear-ing Parsons' cries, implored guards to take her to the hospital.

Instead, guards took her out of a holding area with other inmates who had helped to time her contractions and put her in a cell by herself...   A few hours later, Parsons gave birth completely alone, without health care or support of any kind. According to press reports, although completely healthy when he was born, her son soon developed an infection due to the unsanitary conditions of his birth.

Only last week, a woman gave birth in a Harris County,Texas, jail cell. Another inmate who witnessed the birth told local television news reporters that despite the pregnant woman's pleas for medical attention, guards refused to help her. She gave birth in a jail cell without medical assistance.

The argument that arresting pregnant women protects fetal or maternal health is squarely contradicted by another typical prison condition.

Prisons throughout the United States restrain and shackle women throughout pregnancy and during labor, even though international human rights law bans restraints under these circumstances.

When Kari Parsons began to have labor pains a few days before giving birth, she was taken to a medical facility and later returned to the detention center.  She was trans-ported in handcuffs and shackles.  Although international law and treaties signed by the United States prohibit the shackling of pregnant and birthing women,  Amnesty Interna-tional USA reports that only two states  Illinois and California have banned the barbaric practice throughout pregnancy and child-birth.

Besides being dehumanizing and totally unnecessary for public safety, the use of shackles and handcuffs during pregnancy and childbirth is dangerous to maternal and fetal health.

Pregnant women in their third trimesters may already have balance problems; shackling their legs heightens the risk that a woman will fall, potentially injuring them and their fetuses. Also troubling is that the use of restraints during labor can, according to Amnesty International USA, "compromise the ability to manipulate  (the pregnant woman's) legs into the proper position for the necessary treatment."

Furthermore, when the doctors need to remove the restraints to provide adequate care--such as performing an emergency Caesarean, it can take five or 10 minutes to locate the keys, unlock the shackles and free the woman's legs. This delay can be the difference between life and death for a woman or her child.

In 2005 Regina Kilmon and Kelly Lynn Cruz in Talbot County, Maryland were arrested and charged with child abuse and reckless endangerment when they gave birth in spite of a drug problem. The local social services director, Cathy Mols, said that such prose-cutions were "helpful in protecting children and families."

Recently  Maryland's highest court unanimously overturned the convictions, concluding that the state legislature never intended its child endangerment law to be used as a basis for policing pregnancy.  Such a ruling, however, should not have been necessary to persuade prosecutors and other state officials that arresting and imprisoning women is no way to protect pregnant women and their children.

Julie B.Ehrlich is a law student at New York University and Legal Intern at National Advocates for Pregnant Women.

Lynn M. Paltrow is an Attorney and Executive Director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women.

Mothers with substance abuse issues are generally victims of sexual and domestic violence (97 percent). Often, the underlying reasons for addiction among mothers are untreated post-traumatic stress and/or major depression disorders, precipitated by the injuries of sexual and domestic violence.  When these mothers seek out treatment to heal from their addiction, they face an uphill battle. Families struggling with substance abuse issues are offered few opportunities to find treatment and recovery for themselves and their families.

The 1996 Uniform Facility Data Set found that only 6 percent of the treatment programs surveyed included prenatal care and 11.5 percent provided childcare. Only 37 percent of mothers in need of drug treatment who are mothering children under the age of eighteen receive any kind of treatment services.

Parents involved in the child welfare system are especially impacted by the dearth of drug treatment programs available to families. Over two-thirds of parents involved in the child welfare system require substance abuse treatment, yet existing treatment meets less than one third of that need.  Only ten percent of child welfare agencies report that they can successfully find substance abuse programs for mothers and their children who require the treatment in a timely manner.

The newly passed Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) mandates that child welfare systems make permanency decisions for any child in foster care for 15 consecutive or 15 of 22 months.  Often mothers cannot even gain access to substance abuse treatment programs within that timeframe. Because of the dearth of available treatment for families, many mothers seeking treatment must enter single adult treatment programs and make a "Sophie's Choice" between custody of their children or treatment.

The absence of treatment opportunities for families has also extended out to the criminal justice system. Since 1986, following the introduction of mandatory sentencing to the federal drug laws in the mid 1980s, and its adoption by many states at about the same time the number of women in prison has risen 400 percent, according to a recent Department of Justice report  "Survey of State Prison Inmates"; for black women, the figure is 800 percent.

Most of these women and mothers incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses are suffering with substance abuse issues. In federal prison, for example, 87 percent of the women report being drug addicted. These women and mothers are untreated addicts who are criminalized for their addiction rather than offered treatment and rehabilitation. Mothers struggling with substance abuse are more likely to be afforded access to prison than to comprehensive family treatment.

When it is available family treatment offers a comprehensive opportunity for a parent to heal from addiction with their children.  Families struggling with addiction possess the basic human right to find healing for themselves and their families. Denying mothers and their children the chance for recovery, instead often throwing these mothers into the prisons and the criminal justice system,entrenches low-income families in their poverty and unfairly disintegrates sacred family ties. 


Editor:  Deborah Shrira                       Revised:  November 2008