Remembering a Drug Activist: Siobhan Reynolds: 1961-2011

I didn’t keep up with my drug-related news over the holidays. I didn’t check Facebook or read any blogs. My mother was in town, and I was playing tourist. What could possibly happen, anyway, I thought, with legislators on holiday and courts out of session? Apparently, a lot.

Siobhan Reynolds, 1961 - 2011

I got an email last week alerting me to pain relief activist Siobhan Reynolds’ unexpected death. I couldn’t believe it; I searched the Internet wildly, hoping to prove this was just a rumor. But pieces at Time Magazine, The Logan (OH) Daily NewsDrug War Rant, Reason, TalkLeft, StoptheDrugWar.org, and the American Thinker confirmed that Siobhan had, in fact, perished in a plane crash on Christmas Eve. She died with her partner, attorney Kevin P. Byers (who was piloting the small aircraft), and his mother, Eudora Byers, during an unfortunately unsuccessful attempt to land at the Vinton County Airport in Ohio.

As Points readers may remember, Siobhan Reynolds inaugurated our guest blogging feature in April of last year. During her three-month stint with Points, Siobhan debunked myths about opioid pain medications and the patients who take them; examined the ways in which laws, court rulings, regulations, and discursive frames have detrimentally impacted pain patients for the benefit of the drug war; documented the erosion of the doctor-patient relationship under drug prohibition; looked at how the interpretation of the Controlled Substances Act has been used to control doctors’ decisions about pain management; and proposed rethinking the War on Drugs, not from the perspective of its victims but from that of those who have profited from its outcomes. And that writing is just a tiny fraction of the legacy she leaves behind.

Siobhan and son Ronan

Siobhan founded the Pain Relief Network (PRN) in 2003 in response to the prosecution of Dr. William Hurwitz, who treated her late husband Sean Greenwood for a chronic pain condition with which their now 19-year-old son Ronan is also afflicted. She continued to advocate for doctors and patients unfairly and inaccurately branded “pill pushers” and “addicts” until 2010, when federal prosecutor Tanya Treadway initiated so sweeping and expensive a grand jury investigation against Reynolds and the PRN that the organization was forced to close its doors. With Kevin Byers, whose legal practice focused on pain relief issues from 1992 until his recent death, Siobhan continued to advocate for patients and doctors and was reportedly planning to start a new advocacy group.

I consider myself lucky to have “met” Siobhan, not in person but through her posts here; we emailed frequently and talked on the phone about her work for Points, my own problems with chronic pain, her personal and political battles, and other writing projects she initiated prior to her sudden passing. She often lamented that she felt she was fighting a losing battle. But, as the Agitator’s Radley Balko notes, few people “can claim that they personally changed the public debate about an issue. Siobhan could.” She also impacted people on a personal level. Her Facebook page is full of memorial postings (including my own – and I never do that!), and the comments sections of the articles about her death show a community grieving and angry over the loss of someone so important not just to a social movement but to the many individuals who claimed her as a friend and ally. Siobhan let me know that I was not alone with my chronic pain; she cheered me on against doctors who refused to treat me and showed me compassion when most people questioned my treatment choices. I will miss her voice in the public sphere at least as much as I will miss it in my inbox and on my voicemail. But my thoughts, and those of the rest of the Points staff, lie primarily with her son Ronan, who lost his father to the drug war that his mother spent her life fighting on his behalf.

Siobhan Reynolds in 1980 (age 19)

The pain relief movement has lost its brightest light and loudest voice, and Siobhan’s death is a major blow to the drug policy reform movement as a whole. Someone will have to step forward to take on Siobhan’s role in the public sphere, and whoever emerges will forever stand on her shoulders. Among those for whom Siobhan’s work and life provided personal inspiration and courage, she will never be replaced.

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4 thoughts on “Remembering a Drug Activist: Siobhan Reynolds: 1961-2011

  1. Indefatigable. A fusty old word, but none better to describe Siobhan Reynolds. The quantity and quality of her posts here at Points is a marvel, given how much of her time and energy was already claimed by other aspects of her work. I’m grateful that they’re preserved here. Amy, thanks for this thoughtful remembrance.

  2. Thanks, Joe. I really mostly feel lucky to have worked with her on these pieces (which make such a nice collection and that I’m so happy to have on our blog; I’m happy that they exist, period, blog or no blog, but I’m honored to have shepherded them over to now host them on Points). I’m sad – for a lot of reasons but – in part because I know she was working on several writing projects before she passed, and now I doubt they’ll see publication. She told me about them, and they would have been amazing and eye-opening and important. I know she would have wanted to finish them, and I just hate that she had so much unfinished business – and certainly not just writing.

    And, yes, indefatigable is the one word that I think best describes her all around. I wish I had half the energy and the courage that she did.

  3. Amy, I think it is very important for all of us to look at the unfinished business and everything else about her work. Having been interested in Siobhan’s field for several years, I realized early on she was one of a kind. She was the organized opposition to official suppression of opioid therapy (for whatever reasons it exists). She was not a part of a greater whole, or an example of a type. She was it. Period. Now, it is gone, along with whatever unfinished business went with her.

    Everyone else in this area approaches the problem with some degree of acceptance of the government’s premises — premises constructed out of thin air over one hundred years ago — premises which are glaringly faulty by empirical evidence. Everyone else surrenders to nonsense as a first principle. Everyone else begins with some degree of acceptance of the idea that risk of diversion and addiction are the first and most important factors to consider in evaluating the efficacy of the treatment. She flew circles around anyone in a debate because she could point out their acceptance of faulty premises in any argument they made. She simply refused to admit nonsense into her reasoning, although nonsense is the official line. This caused her to be labeled as an outrageous and absurd maverick — an “outlaw” pundit — as part of the larger campaign to discredit her. The fact that her reasoning was clear, sound, and supported with empirical evidence is what made her dangerous to the status quo. And you can bet they were afraid — very afraid — of what was in her little box of unfinished business.

    There is now no integrated and functional system of resistance to the propoganda on opioids. There is some resistance on a larger scale about drug policy in general, and a tremendous amount about marijuana. But, as for the specific topic of opioid pain treatment, with its crucial significance to an aging baby boom population, the government has succeeded in silencing dissent.

    Most legal experts agreed that the Treadway tantrum was unprecedented and incomprehensible, and was bound to be eventually exposed as abuse of government power. It was too blatant. It was only a matter of time. Legal principles will eventually win through over corrupt officials. They can maintain their power through lies, but they cannot make lies true. The principle eventually prevails in a society based on laws.

    I will be boarding the Ship of Fools directly. All passengers welcome.

    • I agree, James. No one was doing the same kind of work Siobhan was doing. I genuinely worry about the future of pain management policy without her. I think we’d need 10 non-Siobhans to fill the role she did and be as effective. She legitimately frightened the government, and they shut her down.

      That’s a big pair of shoes for anyone to fill, and I’m afraid that no one is looking to. I wouldn’t flatter myself by saying that sometimes I think I should try, but I have thought increasingly since Siobhan’s death that I should do some work on this issue. I just don’t know how.

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