Tina Glasgow, the mother of prominent drug policy reformer, Pastor Kenneth Glasgow, talks to DPA about how she became a drug policy reformer.
Approximately 16 miles north of Florida and 20 miles west of Georgia, tucked quietly into the southeastern corner of Alabama, there is a town, biblical in its name, and with 65,000 residents, tiny in its population. But it is in that town, Dothan, where, despite every tension we know to have long challenged and charged the most directly identifiable victims and survivors of Jim Crow, there is an oasis, a place where the people come for the full breath of their manna, physical, spiritual and intellectual. They come because Dothan is the birthplace of The Ordinary People’s Society (TOPS), the vision of a prisoner who would become a pastor, Kenneth Glasgow. And because TOPS has in its 15 years been responsible for some of the most far-reaching drug policy and criminal justice changes in Alabama—they secured the right to vote for people who were incarcerated; ended the parole and then probation violations of people who tested positive for drug use and most recently ended the ban on collecting food stamps or living in public housing for people with drug law violations—Pastor Glasgow has long and rightfully garnered local and national news, but if you ask him, if his was the mind behind the eye that could see a place for compassionate care for people no matter what scarlet letters had been affixed upon their chests, then his mother, Moma Tina, was the heart.
“Kenny was my only child,” offers the 70-year-old woman who is also grandmother to five and great grandmother to four. “We were always close. When he did his time, I did it right along with him,” she says one hard, bright February morning as she recalls her son’s struggle with an addiction that would trigger several shorter stays and then a full dime in prison. “He had been selling drugs, mostly to get quick money,” she says, which doesn’t surprise. Even during the naughty nineties when the economy seemed to boom, unemployment rates for Black men were generally at twice the national average. And as award-winning author and Columbia University professor, Dr. Carl Hart noted in his masterful memoir / big science tome, High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey to Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society, all the data collected by years of his research on addiction told us: when you take away all of a person’s raison e’tre, they are far more susceptible to addiction and its worst collateral consequences (read: white folk get treatment, Black folk get jail). Another way of saying that is that Kenny became, in Moma Tina’s words, his own best customer and unlike our response to people like, say, Rush Limbaugh or Cindy McCain who have struggled with managing their drug use, Kenny did the bid.
But it was during that time and on that journey that Moma Tina took with her son, one which wound its way across decades, through jails and prisons, loss and longing for another way of living, that opened her eyes—and her great heart—to the need for drug policy reform, most specifically a pathway to reduce the harms associated not only with drug use but the way in which we respond to and treat drug users. Not only had she wanted that for her son, but she recalled her own use of medical marijuana to deal with the aftereffects and trauma she experienced as a survivor of domestic violence. “The medical marijuana helped keep me calm and wasn’t toxic like a lot of the drugs the doctors wanted to give me,” she shares.
And it is this knowing—that harm reduction works, that compassion and that a good damn dose of common sense rather than useless shaming and throwing people away, matters most of all. And she knows that the drug war is worse than any drug, drug user or local drug seller out here. “We are able to feed and support 1,500 people every week,” she says and, “none of that would have happened without my son.” Or her. The woman who has been there every day, for the whole of it, the hills and the valleys, standing as a servant-leader alongside those our society would have cast out forever. She calls them home to the best in themselves, which they in turn share with all of Dothan as they band together to bend the moral arc of their universe ever closer to justice. So as Moma Tina steps out from her support role into the role of executive director of TOPS we salute her for creating a space in the deep South where every person, ordinary and extraordinary, can find food and fellowship, a place of grace and a place for grassroots organizing. Moma Tina is Black Drug Policy History.
asha bandele is a senior director at the Drug Policy Alliance.
*Editor’s note: This post is a part of the Black History Month series from the Drug Policy Alliance. See posts from the whole series, including past years, here.