Pubdate: Sun, 22 Jun 2014
Source: Observer, The (UK)
Copyright: 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited
Author: Mark Townsend
Page: 32


She Says the War on Drugs Killed Her Daughter

This Week Will See Demonstrations Across the World Against Drugs 
Prohibition. And, in the UK, Parents Who Have Suffered Tragic Losses 
Are Among Those Pressing for Reforms That They Hope Will Save Lives

On 17 July 1971 the US president, Richard Nixon, announced what has 
become known as the war on drugs, instigating an unrelenting campaign 
that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and billions of dollars.

On the same date, 42 years later, in north Oxford, Martha Fernback, 
15, and a friend bought a plastic sachet holding a crystallised gram 
of MDMA for UKP40 from a dealer. It was no impulse buy. Martha's 
online history revealed she had meticulously researched the risks of 
the drug and opted to buy its most expensive variant, assuming the 
better quality it was, the safer it would be.

One of the myriad ramifications of Nixon's hardline stance has meant 
buying drugs is a fraught and risk-laden business: users do not know 
what they are taking. In Martha's case better quality meant greater 
purity. She had no idea that her batch was 91% pure compared with an 
average street level of 58%. Around lunchtime on 20 July last year 
Martha swallowed her 0.5 gram and within two hours was dead, the MDMA 
inducing cardiac failure.

The response of her mother, Anne-Marie Cockburn, 42, was unusual. She 
refused to blame her daughter, her friends, or the dealer or the 
manufacturer. Cockburn, a single mother, focused on a greater target: 
the government.

"It quickly became obvious that prohibition had had its chance but 
failed," she said. "Martha is a sacrificial lamb under prohibition. 
The question is: how many more Marthas have to die before we change 
our approach? It's not acceptable to allow the risks to remain."

The risks of drug use under prohibition were articulated again last 
weekend when another 15-year-old, Rio Andrew, died, apparently 
oblivious to the strength of the drug he had taken. Witnesses saw 
Rio, from Notting Hill, west London, drinking beer laced with the 
so-called party drug ketamine. Another partygoer, aged 19, who drank 
from the same bottle at a rave in Croydon, south London, reportedly 
ended up in hospital. The death comes months after ministers 
reclassified ketamine from Class C to B because of its physical and 
psychological dangers amid its enduring popularity.

As the anniversary of Martha's death nears, Anne-Marie Cockburn is 
emerging as the face of the campaign to expose the flaws of 
prohibition and push for the legalisation and regulation of drugs. 
Her efforts have touched a nerve; hundreds of mothers who have also 
had to bury a child because of drugs have been in touch, many from 
South America  in particular Mexico and Colombia where the war on 
drugs has wreaked most havoc. In Mexico more than 80,000 people have 
died in the last five years, with another 20,000 "disappeared" while 
drugs are cheaper and more plentiful than ever.

Cockburn has also been contacted by police, nurses and doctors who 
have all privately backed her calls to legalise Britain's drug trade. 
"It's like I've thrown a pebble into the ocean, it's rippling 
everywhere," she said, noting that a number of countries have 
recently begun to deviate from the prohibition line. On Thursday 6 
June thousands of people worldwide are expected to march in more than 
80 cities, including London, to protest against the decades-long 
impact of Nixon's strategy which they blame for compromising health, 
triggering instability and mass incarceration.

Among the parents supporting Cockburn's campaign are those of 
18-year-old Leah Betts, who died after taking ecstasy in 1995, 
prompting her parents to launch a campaign to promote drug awareness 
among teenagers. Days before the tenth anniversary of her death, 
however, Leah's parents decided to wind up their initiative, 
declaring that they had been betrayed by the government.

Cockburn remains undeterred by the prospect of political inertia. She 
is drafting a letter to the home secretary, Theresa May, and her 
opposition counterpart, Yvette Cooper, stressing the case for an 
urgent appraisal of the drug laws. She appreciates that in the runup 
to a general election such a move requires deep reserves of political 
courage although she takes succour from the fact that David Cameron, 
as a young MP, endorsed more lenient penalties for ecstasy possession 
and sat on a parliamentary committee that called for an international 
debate on the legalisation of drugs.

Unfortunately for reformers, his tenure as prime minister so far has 
seen him accept the existing orthodoxy. Similarly, the latest noises 
from inside Labour are depressing for those convinced a new look at 
drugs is required; the party is apparently intent on avoiding the issue.

"The timing is not ideal, but the timing was not right for me, I was 
not ready to bury my daughter," said Cockburn, an engaging and 
articulate presence who is adept at mixing the personal and 
political. The scale of her challenge is neatly emphasised by the 
fact that the stimulant plant khat will become a class C drug on 
Tuesday after 60 years of being legally imported into the UK, almost 
solely by Kenyans and Somalis.

Already she has had a taste of how detached modern politicians can 
appear. A handwritten letter from her Tory MP, Nicola Blackwood, 
arrived recently at Cockburn's Oxford home; it was the response to a 
letter Martha had sent almost a year ago detailing her concerns about 
mental health provision for young people in the city.

"The MP had sent a handwritten letter to a dead teenager. She lives 
about a mile from here. Had she not heard of my daughter?" she said.

Cockburn hopes Martha will become known to many in the years ahead as 
she promotes her message of a safety-first approach to drugs. Her 
hope is that young people of the future will have the option of 
buying clearly labelled drugs from regulated sources; future users 
will know whether a batch is 91% pure.

Alongside the introduction of drugs education into schools, the 
system would allow the government to seize control of a trade now the 
preserve of organised gangs. "Surely it's better than criminals 
running it? It's about safety. At the moment young people are buying 
drugs with a blank label. You're not going to stop young people 
taking risks, experimenting. It's about harm reduction. You want to 
live in a safe society? This is about safety," said Cockburn.

The latest Home Office figures show that nearly one in 10 adults had 
used an illegal drug in the previous 12 months and more than a third 
of adults had taken an illicit drug in their lifetime.

Campaigners point to the fact that half the prison population is 
serving a sentence for drug-related offences with half of all 
property crime committed by drug users requiring cash. About UKP1.5bn 
of the UKP2.5bn spent on the UK's drug strategy goes on enforcement.

Danny Kushlick of the drug campaign group Transform, which says that 
two-thirds of the UK public supports a review of drug policy, said: 
"A political vacuum has been created by the non-engagement of Labour 
and Conservatives in the drug policy reform debate. Parliament is 
effectively denying the UK public the opportunity to see the evidence 
for and against drug policy reform being laid out," he said.

"Anne-Marie [Cockburn], in her measured and sombre way, has occupied 
that space, bringing a much needed honesty and pragmatism to the 
issue. But change is urgently required and sadly many more will die 
before parliament collectively grabs the opportunity for change," 
said Kushlick.

Cockburn's campaign embraces the principles of restorative justice to 
replace the punitive system of putting users and small-time dealers 
in jail from where they are likely to reoffend. Recently she visited 
Parc prison in Bridgend, south Wales, and told Martha's story to 22 
inmates, many serving sentences for drug offences. All were reduced 
to tears. One has since written a song in tribute to Martha. "If you 
trust people, treat them like humans, they will repay you," she said. 
Cockburn is also planning to write to Alex Williams, 17, the Oxford 
dealer who sold Martha the "exceptionally" pure MDMA  for which he 
received a three-month curfew and 18-month youth rehabilitation order 
- - believing that he is also a victim of the approach to drugs.

She is adamant that Martha's death will touch a nerve with young 
children's parents. "I'm just a normal person who speaks normally to 
others," said Cockburn, whose book 5,742 Days, the number of days her 
daughter lived, chronicles her grief and struggle to make sense of her loss.

"In some ways I woke up once Martha was gone. Although it's so 
painful, I feel so alive, I feel everything and I have all this time 
and energy that I had devoted to Martha that I can now dedicate to 
changing things for the better," she said.

Martha, she adds, will never be forgotten by anybody who met her, 
describing how the teenager would walk her three-legged rabbit, 
Bluebell, around the local streets to the delight of their neighbours 
and that her favourite film was Some Like It Hot.

But Cockburn cannot shake the sense of dread accompanying the start 
of the music festival season and the likelihood of the first 
drug-related death, which she likens to the sense of impotence she 
felt when learning that her daughter and her friends were dabbling 
with drugs. "I'm just waiting for the next one. What's driving me 
forward is the hope that I can stop a mother feeling like I do now."

On the anniversary of Martha's death next month, Cockburn plans to 
hold a picnic by the Oxford lake where she collapsed; a ceremony to 
mark one year on a mother's journey to change the lives of millions.



MDMA (ecstasy)

What is it? Developed as a blood-clotting agent.

What it does Acts as a releasing agent for serotonin, a chemical 
messenger in the brain. May also increase levels of the "love" 
hormone oxytocin.

The highs Increased energy, empathy, heightened mood. Makes sounds 
and colours more vibrant.

The lows Anxiety, paranoia, depression, loss of appetite, insomnia, 
exhaustion, intense sensation of thirst.

Popularity Estimated 460,000 users in Britain.


What is it? An anaesthetic developed for use in human and veterinary medicine.

What it does Elicits a host of anaesthetic effects by blocking pain signals.

The highs Relaxation, hallucinations, feeling of separation of mind and body.

The lows Inability to move, an increase in risk-taking behaviour, 
bladder problems and respiratory trouble in extreme cases.

Popularity 190,000 users


What is it? Isolated from coca leaves, cocaine is a crystalline 
powder isolated in the mid-19th century. The leaves were chewed for 
thousands of years before and used as a local anaesthetic.

What it does Blocks the "cleaning up" of serotonin, noradrenaline and 
dopamine in the brain, which accumulate, causing increased stimulation.

The highs Increased alertness, euphoria, heightened energy and confidence.

The lows Anxiety, depression, paranoia, breathing problems, rise in 
temperature, blood pressure and heart rate.

Popularity 700,000 users.


What is it? Chewable plant around for thousands of years, originating 
in Africa.

What it does Active ingredient, increases concentration of dopamine, 
associated with pleasurable feelings, affects levels of serotonin and 
noradrenaline, meaning their stimulatory effects last longer.

The highs Alertness, calm, elation.

The lows Irritability, insomnia, mood swings, heart problems, constipation.

Popularity: 60,000 users.


What is it? Man-made former legal high, now banned across the EU.

What it does Stimulant with similar effects to MDMA and cocaine.

The highs Increased energy, "chatiness", euphoria, friendliness.

The lows Tremors, loss of appetite, anxiety, paranoia, irregular 
heartbeat, raised blood pressure, difficulty urinating.

Popularity 350,000 users

Sources:,, ONS
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom