Mothers who use banned drugs
by Katie Horneshaw

I was introduced to the concept of harm reduction in my crowded high school library in 2001. The teachers had caught wind that a mysterious, beat-up old van had been parking every day on the Eastern perimeter of the school grounds and doing some decidedly dodgy looking trades with students. And we, the students, were helplessly awaiting our fate.

Discussion was hushed and panicked. Was this a mass-arrest? Could we believably claim to have been naïve to the contents of the ‘cookies’ being sold out of the van? But to our surprise, the unknown ‘team’ assembled before us did not pull out the handcuffs. They started educating us. They told us all about cannabis, its effects on the mind and body, the different ways it could be consumed, and the potential harms of buying it in cookies from unknown sources. And then… they left.

No one got so much as a detention. We were told by our teachers that this approach was called harm reduction, and that it was now the official policy of ‘the government.’ It was all about accepting that drug use was inevitable, and instead of punishing people, helping them to reduce the resulting harms. I thought this was a fabulous idea.

12 years later, I let two burly officers from the CAT team into our family home. They were there to whisk my sister, Anna, away. Anna had been trapped in a web of paranoid delusion for over a week and had been drinking and taking drugs to stymie the voices - but had rudely absconded before her scheduled appointment with two enormous men in uniforms. “You’ve got to go with tough love!” they lectured my mother and father, “No more drugs in the house. If she breaks the rules, she’s out.”

When my exhausted parents finally relented to the chorus of official voices evangelising for the tough love agenda, Anna’s descent became steeper still, and she now resides in Victoria’s maximum security prison for women. (You can read about Anna’s story here or here.)

This tough love approach seemed rather out of step with the government’s ‘harm reduction’ principles.

I was so incensed by this disparity between principle and practice that I turned my freelance journalism toward it, and discovered that even within the harm reduction movement itself - a loosely affiliated knot of government funded services, organisations and advocacy platforms - the core of the message had been lost.

Harm reduction services seemed to be viewed as something a drug user ‘earned’ with good behaviour - Opioid Substitution Therapy programs (OST) could be discontinued if the client showed symptoms of the ‘illness’ they were there to treat by using heroin. Movements had emerged for medicinal-licensing of certain drugs - but it was the least harmful drugs - cannabis and LCD - not the most harmful, that were being proffered for consideration.

It seemed that everywhere, ‘harm reduction’ services were concentrating their efforts on the wrong end of the scale - where the harms were relatively light. The people most afflicted by drug-related harms were left unserviced. The methadone recipients who had fronted up high one too many times and were now left to choose whether to enter torturous withdrawal or re-start a habit. The methamphetamine user who would like to access a safe consumption site but they draw the line at crack pipes. And, right at the very end of the spectrum, far beyond the reach of any service, are the mothers who use banned drugs.

It’s a final taboo: mothers are supposed to be the shining lights of society, a symbol of martyrdom and sacrifice. Society puts drug-using mothers in a similar discursive space to paedophiles or granny-muggers: permanent scapegoats. To apply the central principle of harm reduction to mothers: that it is inevitable that there will be mothers who use banned drugs, and that we should therefore seek to minimise the resulting harms - is a bridge too far, even for those in the industry.

And so, the children of these women continue to be removed (this report found that, while 9 out of 10 women entering prison in Australia are mothers, only 4 in 10 still have dependent children. And that statistic only worsens upon exit). And the intergenerational wounds set in motion by the routine breaking of the mother-child bond continue to go unhealed.

Until 2015, this was an abstract thought. One that I would bring to mind, turn around with curiosity, inspecting the various planes and angles, and then, admittedly, put back away.

But then, in 2015, my sister became one of them. Anna gave birth while serving her prison term to a screaming, healthy boy, who was promptly whisked away and handed to me. He is wonderful; a joy; but the grief my sister must carry is immense.

And it’s not just her.  At ‘The Dame’, as we call The Dame Phyllis Frost Correctional Centre, almost every single inmate has had multiple children removed. They are my sister’s friends - bright, bubbly, many of them deeply child-like themselves. When I’ve done interviews in the prison, there is only one thing the women dream of upon their release - “I’ve got to get my kids back this time!”

An imprisoned sister and a career in drug journalism has rendered me pretty unshockable. But the cruelty society reserves for these funny, irreverent women gets me right in the chest. These are women who themselves come from backgrounds filled with pain - who have turned to drugs for the whisper of warmth - the promise of a momentary reprieve from trauma. And they are women who have tried their damndest; upon falling in love with their children; to fold that trauma away into a box and never let it out. But, trauma isn’t known for its obedience to boundaries. And being a mum is hard.

It’s not fair that we wag our fingers at these women for trying to find a way to numb the pain, to cope and carry on, while at the same time, it is our judgement that keeps them out of the local doctor’s office, away from child services, and terrified of revealing their problems to a single soul for fear of having the thing they love the most in the world torn away.

When you have lived a life where banned drug use has been your only reliable escape from pain, instant abstinence is simply not realistic, under any circumstances. But especially when you’ve got a tyrannical blob screaming you awake ten times a night.

Some of these mothers will find their way to a recovery centre or an OST program, some will eventually achieve lasting abstinence. But many more won’t. There are always going to be mothers who use banned drugs. They are not scumbags or heathens, they are normal women who are doing their best, and they love their kids just as much as you and I.

I remember why I was so impressed, all those years ago, as the team of cool-drug-educating-dudes left the library. It was because they got it. Us kids, we weren’t gonna stop experimenting because some scary guy wagged his finger at us. Now, there was a government program that would help us whether we said yes to the joint or not!

As far as I know, between 2001 and now, the core message of harm reduction has not changed - you accept first that drug use is inevitable - everywhere - and then you roll up your sleeves and get to work helping those who are most harmed.



First Step is honoured to have Katie Horneshaw write this piece for First Step on #IWD2023.

Katie is a writer and harm reduction advocate. Her writing on substance use, the justice system and women’s issues has been featured in The Guardian, The Age and Alcohol and Other Drug industry journal The Bulletin. Katie’s work in harm reduction and human rights-centred drug policy; which has included roles at AOD Media Watch, Unharm, SMART Recovery Australia and The Pennington Institute; was first motivated by her frustrations at trying and failing to find humane integrated mental health and substance use care for her sister during a period of crisis in 2015. Anna Horneshaw is now in prison, and Katie has cared for Anna’s son since his birth. Katie’s views on drug policy and integrated care have been featured on SBS Insight, The Project and Mamamia’s No Filter. Katie also studies graduate psychology at Melbourne University.