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I changed my mind on how to tackle drug addiction

  1. Criminal Justice

I changed my mind on how to tackle drug addiction

The founder of End it for Good says the war on drugs has failed. Here’s why.

She changed her mind on the war on drugs

Christina Dent, a foster mother, strong Christian, and president of the nonprofit End It for Good, has never been one to follow the rules others set for her. 

Dent grew up in a family deeply committed to their faith and values. Sometimes this put them at odds with popular beliefs. "We were always questioning, 'Is the status quo the right thing? Period. And is it the right thing for us? And if it's not, we're going to chart our own course and take a different approach.'"

This is how Dent lived her life as well, especially when it came to drugs. She never used drugs or spent time around them. 

In 2015, Dent and her husband became foster parents. It would change their lives.  The first baby boy she brought home challenged her beliefs on drugs and addiction. Beckham was only a newborn, but he was born with drugs in his system because his biological mother had used drugs while she was pregnant. Despite this, Dent was struck by the love his mother felt for her son. It made her question her preconceived notion that people struggling with addiction were either selfish or irresponsible and that the criminal justice system's war on drugs was the best way to manage drug addiction.

"I thought maybe it's all a show, maybe it's not real," she says of the first time she met Joanne and saw her with Beckham. But as Dent got to know Joanne, this explanation didn't hold up. "She would call from inpatient drug treatment, and she would sing to Beckham over speakerphone," Dent says. "That really poked a hole in what I thought I knew about addiction."

This epiphany inspired her to dig deeper into the issue. She describes what followed as an "incredibly uncomfortable" 18-month search for the truth about the war on drugs and what it had done to people. "I don't think any of us enjoy having something we have believed for a long time challenged," she says.  

She learned about solutions to substance use that are more effective than criminalization via the war on drugs. The most important lesson: People suffering from substance use disorder need medical care, not jail time. The things Dent learned gave her hope — not just for people like Joanne and Beckham, but for a happier, safer future for all Americans. 

Dent began sponsoring book clubs and discussion groups so she could share her new perspective with as many people as would listen. Eventually, she was raising money for bigger events, including dinners for 50 or more participants with whom she could share her message of compassion and dignity for people suffering from substance use disorder. 

She is now the president of End It For Good, a nonprofit she founded to help others question the status quo of "only bad people use drugs." The organization focuses on educating citizens, advocates, and policymakers about health-centered drug policies.  

At first Dent believed only bad people use drugs

Before she met Beckham and Joanne, Dent says she didn't think too deeply about drugs. "I grew up with the messaging that I heard in the culture," she says, "which is drugs are bad and using drugs is bad and only bad people would engage in that."

Joanne didn't fit this stereotype. "When I first met Joanne, she ran over to her son and just started kissing him. I knew that she had been using drugs while she was pregnant," she says. "I didn't have any way to understand that, other than clearly, this is a mother who doesn't love her child." 

Dent's worldview began to unravel. 

"I was very caught off guard by the open, vulnerable, raw expressions of love that I saw from her," she says of Joanne. "It was very disconcerting for me because the way I understood the world, and the way I understood drug use and addiction and my role as a foster parent all hinged on this idea that people who use drugs are bad people." 

Later, when Dent brought Beckham to live with Joanne in a drug treatment center, she was surprised again, this time by how normal everyone looked. She says you couldn't tell the difference between the clients and therapists. "Everyone talked to each other as though they were equal." She saw "no shame or blame anywhere." 

This proved a breaking point for her. She suddenly started crying. Everyone thought she was emotional because she was going to miss Beckham, but that wasn't it. She says what she saw touched a deep place in her heart, and it was "cracking open." 

She remembers thinking, "I need to put these pieces together. This is too important to just try to push away."

Dent discovered all that she had misunderstood

As she began her research, Dent says at first she felt curiosity. Once she cut out the fear-mongering information she felt she'd grown up hearing, her perspective shifted. She explains that our substance use education for the last 100 years has made us fear people who use drugs. "Really all that does is make us unable to think rationally about what we're doing with drugs," she says.

As she studied, Dent learned that people suffering from substance use disorder are not evil. They are in pain. The root causes of substance use are trauma, mental illness and loneliness. She now believes incarcerating people for substance use only worsens the trauma and isolation feeding their addictions. 

She says the war on drugs is fueling the overdose crisis because unregulated drugs are often more potent. Existing drug policies destabilize families and incentivize underground markets that use violence to solve disputes because the justice system isn't available to them.

Opening herself up was rough. "I certainly was not motivated just because I like to have what I think challenged," she says. "I don't enjoy that any more than anybody else does."

She pushed through her own resistance because she "saw a little light at the end of a long dark tunnel and wondered if that light was just a tiny little flame or if it was actually coming out of the tunnel into a bright new day."

Dent's new beliefs are more in line with her core values

The more she learned, the more Dent realized that existing drug policies clashed with her values as a conservative Christian.

It was hard to disentangle what her changing views meant for her as a Christian. She says she remembers at one point having a clear thought of, "If I change my mind in favor of legally regulated markets for drugs instead of prohibition and criminalization, can I even be a Christian anymore? Does that mean I am not a Christian?" 

She says that her previous mindset about drugs felt like it was part of her core. She wasn't sure what would happen if she changed her mind about how to approach drugs and addiction. "I definitely felt this sorting process that I think all of us are afraid of." 

Dent's sorting led to a revelation: "The solutions I came to support are more in line with my values than the ones I was supporting previously," she says. "That was a very freeing experience to realize I'm not losing my values. I'm actually bringing the way I think more into line with what I believe about people."

With End It For Good, Dent has seen others transform their views 

At End It For Good events, Dent tells her story along with why she supports regulated legalization and decriminalization of drugs. She then gives everyone in the room an opportunity to comment on what she has said — no judgment.

A nurse told her she had never even thought about decriminalizing drug possession, but it makes a lot of sense. "I can totally get there because of my experience in health care," she said.

A deputy sheriff who had come to two other events said he thought she was crazy the first time he heard her speak. "But then I came to another event, and it kind of got me thinking," he said. "I heard it again tonight, and I really think you might be onto something.'" 

One father said, "If I had been here three weeks ago, I probably would have gotten up and walked out halfway through your presentation. I would have thought you were completely crazy. But three weeks ago, I was giving my son CPR because he overdosed. I'm looking for real solutions. I'm open to whatever is going to solve this crisis."

Joanne and Beckham have come full circle

Joanne has been sober since Beckham was born eight years ago. She has spent that time helping other people suffering from substance use disorder, most recently as a case manager for a local drug court. She has started her own nonprofit to help mothers in situations similar to hers, and she's working on opening a sober living home for mothers with children. 

"She's just an incredible woman," says Dent. "She always was an incredible woman but was also struggling and was self-medicating in a harmful way." Now that she has found healing for the underlying causes of her addiction, she has been able to raise her son and contribute to her family and community.

"All of that is only possible because she's not sitting in a prison cell while her son's growing up without her," Dent says. "When I see someone who is struggling with an addiction, my first thought used to be, 'Yikes, I should stay away from them.' Now my first thought is, 'I wonder what they've been through, what's happened to them. I wonder what they're dealing with that could be so heavy.'"

If we could turn this into a cultural shift, Dent believes, "We would grow as a society, and we would see much better outcomes for addiction recovery."

End It For Good is supported by Stand Together Trust, which provides funding and strategic capabilities to innovators, scholars and social entrepreneurs to develop new and better ways to tackle America's biggest problems.

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