Domestic Violence and the Drug War

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM).  Conceived of by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence,  DVAM finds its roots in the “Day of Unity,” first observed in October 1981 with the intent of connecting advocates across the nation who were working to end violence against women and their children. The Day of Unity quickly grew into an entire week of activities, before the first DVAM was observed in October 1987, the same year that the first national domestic violence toll-free hotline was launched. In 1989, the U.S. Congress passed Public Law 101-112 designating October of that year as National Domestic Violence Awareness Month; similar legislation has passed every year since. Meanwhile the Day of Unity continues to be celebrated on the first Monday of DVAM.

What is domestic violence, and what does it have to do with ending the War on Drugs?

Domestic violence is problematic in and of itself, but because the use of drugs or alcohol by one or more parties is a common factor in many domestic abuse cases, drug policy plays a big role in facilitating and exacerbating the problems associated with domestic violence. Not all domestic abuse cases start because one or more parties are using substances, and the majority of alcohol and drug users are not abusive towards their friends, family, and loved ones. However, both male and female drug users are at a higher risk of becoming victims of sexual and physical violence (Open Society Foundation, 2015). Sometimes both parties involved in domestic abuse are using alcohol or other drugs; sometimes only the offender or the victim is using or abusing substances. Sometimes the abuse happens first, and drugs become a way for the victim to cope. The trauma of being abused can lead to a wide range of mental illnesses, which gives victims another reason to seek out and use substances in order to escape from the pain they are experiencing or find a way to regain control (Futures of Palm Beach Counseling Center, 2015). Offenders often use drugs as a way to explain their violence, or use their partner’s drug use as a reason to abuse them physically, mentally, emotionally, and/or financially (Futures of Palm Beach Counseling Center, 2015). And, batterers have often experienced or witnessed domestic violence themselves.

Drug policy facilitates and/or exacerbates domestic violence, in part because survivors who use drugs are often unable to access treatment.

In the United States, surveys have reported that 25 to 57% of women in drug treatment programs experienced intimate partner violence in the previous year compared to 1.5 to 1.6% of women in the general population (American Journal of Public Health, 2005). Despite this, domestic or sexual violence services are often unavailable to or explicitly ban women who use drugs or have been criminalized in some other manner. Service providers who are trained to handle domestic violence do not always have the tools, knowledge, or resources to address substance use. The inability or unwillingness of service providers to help substance-using women who are victims of violence makes it difficult, if not impossible, for these women to be able to report violence to police and seek justice, or to lead safer and healthier lives. Just as it is important for domestic violence service providers to learn about drug use and drug policy, it is crucial for us as drug policy activists to understand how drug policy reform can uplift people who may be suffering from domestic violence (Open Society Foundation, 2015).

Drug policy and domestic violence have led to increasing incarceration rates amongst women.

Women are currently the fastest growing population in the federal prison system (ACLU, 2015), in part because of flawed drug policy. Sometimes called the “girlfriend problem,” women who are in relationships with men who are involved in drug-related activities are often held criminally liable for their crimes. Because of a quirk in our legal system, these women frequently face much more serious criminal penalties than their partners, despite primarily committing relatively low-level crimes. While the men, as more serious offenders, can escape imprisonment or significantly reduce their time by entering into plea bargains, the women are unable to provide the high-level information needed to be offered plea bargains (United Nations, 2013).

How do I support someone experiencing domestic violence?

  • Use “I” statements. Domestic violence is about one person exerting, and abusing, control over another person. Unsurprisingly, victims of domestic violence often feel a total loss of control and power. Although it may be hard, the best thing you can do is support them as they decide their next steps. Saying, “I’m really worried about you because I see that your partner makes you upset” is a better approach than, “You have to leave your partner.”
  • Avoid blame. Sometimes, from an outsider’s perspective, it can be difficult to see why a victim of abuse is choosing to stay. Abusive relationships are complex, and sometimes victims are led to believe that the abuse is their fault, and that it will stop if they change. It’s important to understand that abusers are responsible for the abuse, not the victim. Saying, “It’s not your fault” can go a long way.
  • Ask how you can help. When someone is suffering from domestic violence, the best way to help is to meet them where they are. Sometimes victims cannot seek help because if their abuser found out, they would be in more severe danger. Sometimes financial constraints or the presence of children can make it more difficult to leave. There are many things you can do to help them be safer, even if they cannot avoid abuse altogether.
  • Encourage them to build a support system. One of the main ways in which abusers exert control over a victim is by cutting off all meaningful forms of social support, either directly (by telling the victim they can’t see their friends or family) or indirectly (by lowering their self esteem and making them feel unworthy of love). Sometimes the most helpful thing you can do is just be there and reflect their positive traits back to them. Encourage them to talk to friends or family about whatever they are comfortable sharing.
  • Take care of yourself and don’t give up. For victims of domestic violence, becoming a survivor is a journey, not a destination. If you are a friend or family member of someone you suspect is suffering from domestic violence, it is important to take care of yourself in order to be able to care for those you love.
More resources

Take Action (10 points).

Interested in taking on an SSDP DARE? Your chapter can receive 10 points on the SSDP CAT (Chapter Activity Tracker) for completing this month’s DARE.
  • Give a presentation to your chapter about the connection between drug policy and domestic violence. Remember that domestic violence comes in many forms—it can be between parents and children, lovers or friends. It can be physical, sexual, financial, or emotional. Feel free to think outside the box! It might also be a good idea to research and compile a list of campus and community services that deal with issues of domestic violence. Because drug policy is so intricately linked with issues of domestic violence, being able to refer your peers to resources can make your chapter a more supportive and inclusive space.

 Get Involved.