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.
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 News, Drug 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 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.
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.