San Diego

Nonprofit Launched by Parents of Addicts Influences Drug Policy Changes

Twenty years ago, the nonprofit A New PATH was founded by three parents whose children were struggling with addiction.

Sylvia Liwerant, Grethen Burns Bergman and Tom O' Donnell met during a support group for families.

"We got together, three hurt people, parents like lions who are helping their cubs," said Liwerant. "We were angry and we were hurt by what was happening to our children. We wanted help. We felt so helpless."

Their children had been sent to prison for non-violent offenses.

"You know what happens there? There are more drugs and there are gangs," said Liwerant.

Burns Bergman said, "You don’t want someone struggling with this disorder to have to watch their backs."

Referencing the Serenity Prayer, Burns Bergman said, "We understood we could not change the fact our children were struggling with a substance use disorder, but it was the middle part, the courage to change the things you can, that was really getting to me."

They invited judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys to their homes to talk with them about what they say was the criminalization of children because of a health issue. They wanted treatment for their children. Not prison.

"Don't leave us out of the conversation, we live with this. We are the primary stakeholders," said Burns Bergman.

In 1999, they founded A New PATH, Parents for Addiction Treatment and Healing.

"We took it upon ourselves to speak out...We started with a lot of passion and by the seat of our pants," said Burns Bergman. "Not knowing or having any idea it would build and that the need was that large."

In the last 20 years, A New PATH has been a part of numerous changes in drug policies. Among the changes, Proposition 36, which calls for mandatory treatment instead of prison for non-violent drug possession offenders. 

"That was the first real change in drug policy that rippled throughout the United States in terms of policy reform," she said. A New PATH also has been a part of the passage of Proposition 47, which reduces felonies to misdemeanor drug possession charges. The organization fought for the legalization of marijuana. Burns Bergman was the state spokesperson for the proposition

Burns Bergman said some people might wonder, "Why is a nice mother promoting marijuana? We are not promoting any drug use at all. The problem is the consequences are worse than the drug itself."

She says if someone has a felony on their record, it makes it more difficult to get a job or get into school. A New PATH was also instrumental in getting bills passed to provide access to Naloxone, a drug that can save the life of a person who has overdosed on opioids.

"Why couldn't parents who were worried about their children overdosing have that in their medicine cabinet?" asked Burns Bergman.

But the focus of A New PATH is what Burns Bergman calls "stigma busting."

"We've come a long way in 20 years," said Burns Bergman. "At that time people weren't talking about it if they had a child with an addictive illness, because of the shame."

A New PATH's campaigns to reduce the stigma of addiction are in 35 states. The nonprofit also works with six countries on drug policy.

"There is still stigma about addiction," said Liwerant, "But people are understanding it better... and the way I understand addiction, people start using because of the pain they cannot solve."

Looking back 20 years, Burns Bergman can't help but also look forward.

"The awareness we created so that other families don't have to go through what we went though, I am proud of that," said Burns Bergman. "That's what compels me to continue because I feel there is so much more we have to do in order to have the kind of world you want your grandchildren to grow up in."

Her sons are thriving, and she says "It's the most important thing as a mother, but as an advocate, as a person who is trying to make the world a better place, I care about all the children in the world."

Liwerant was asked if in her wildest dreams did she ever think A New PATH would have such an impact.

"First of all, in my wildest dreams, I never thought any one of my children would be incarcerated, I never thought we would be impacted by the disease of addiction in my family, and I never thought we would impact our world the way we have."

She added, "I think we did phenomenally."

Tom O'Donnell was not available for the interview. For more information, go to

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