Bereaved mothers’ engagement in drug policy reform: A multisite qualitative analysis

Mothers standing with signs during a rally

By Emily Jenkins, Allie Slemon, Heather Morris, Elaine Hyshka, Petra Schulz, and Rebecca J. Haines-Saah


Globally, a tainted drug supply is claiming the lives of tens of thousands of people who use drugs and current measures are not quelling this crisis. Within this context, mothers who have lost a child to substance use have emerged as vocal advocates for drug policy changes. This paper explores mothers’ experiences in drug policy advocacy to uncover how they are using their stories to drive policy change.


Critical qualitative and narrative methods informed individual interviews with 43 mothers who had lost a child to substance use from across three regions in Canada: British Columbia, Prairie Provinces, and Eastern Provinces. Multisite qualitative analysis (MSQA) provided a rigorous analytical method to identify how social context informed participants’ advocacy efforts within and across geographies, together with a theoretical lens from Haraway to understand mothers’ activism as situated knowledge.


Mothers’ drug policy advocacy was shaped by social context and norms, which influenced the types of advocacy targets pursued, within the constraints of the social and political ethos of each geographic region. Yet across regions, narratives of shared aims and experiences also emerged. Specifically, the notion that people of all backgrounds are dying and that losing a child to substance use can “happen to anyone” – though people who experience structural vulnerabilities are disproportionately impacted. Additionally, mothers’ stories were identified as a particularly powerful tool for conveying emotional knowledge and prompting action that complements other forms of knowledge or evidence.


To date, efforts to address the drug poisoning epidemic have done little to curb casualties. Mothers whose child’s death is related to substance use are one group who are bringing their experiences to advocacy efforts aimed at generating new solutions, including calls for decriminalization and legal regulation of drugs. This and other lived experience perspectives represent a critical voice in decision-making and hold the potential to inform more responsive and impactful drug policy.

This article was part of a Special Issue in the International Journal of Drug Policy. Read the full Special Issue here.