Guest post: 'I want MPs to stand by my daughter's grave and tell me that our drugs policy works'
Following a government study, which found no link between tough drug laws and reducing drug use, Anne-Marie Cockburn - whose daughter Martha died at 15 after taking ecstasy - explains why she wants to see drugs legalised
What Martha Did Next
Posted on: Mon 10-Nov-14 16:26:12
(39 comments )
Her chair is empty, but as I cast my eyes down to type I can almost imagine her sitting there - her skinny little knees tucked under her chin, immersed in her teenage world. That selfish phase we all went through where you felt the world was against you and that nobody understood you. Internally you were shouting 'it's my life - stop telling me what to do'.
Despite this, my 15-year-old daughter Martha was still tactile, loving and sharply witty. We had an open and honest relationship and talked about anything and everything - which is why she felt able to tell me that she had taken ecstasy.
My main worry was that, whilst I was terrified, there was no fear within her. I asked her why she would do such a thing and she said very simply "it makes me feel happy". "Aren't you happy anyway?" I barked, and she said "yes, but it makes me feel even happier". That floored me - the matter-of-factness of her response, as though I had asked her if she wanted a cup of tea.
I didn't know where to turn. I took her into her school in the hope that somebody would help her to see sense. And I did what I could to scare her out of it: "those tablets could have anything in them - they could contain rat poison", I said.
My words now haunt me, because what happened next showed me that she had actually listened to some of my advice.
On the 20th of July last year, at 1.15pm, an unrecognised number appeared on my mobile phone. I picked it up and a stranger's voice said: "your daughter is gravely ill and we're trying to save her life".
Martha had been kayaking as usual that Saturday morning with a club in Oxford. Afterwards, at 11.30am, she swallowed half a gram of white powder. We now know that it was MDMA – more widely known as ecstasy – that was 91% pure. She had done her research and gone for the more pure version, rather than a tablet, trying to keep within the realms of safety. But it was clear she had no idea what she was doing.
She collapsed at the lakeside at 1.15pm, banging her head as she went down and cutting it badly. She was with a handful of her 15-year-old friends, who witnessed her getting high. There were signs that she was in distress early on, but they were too scared to call the ambulance until her lips turned dark blue and she stopped breathing. Of course, what they were doing was illegal, and they didn't want Martha to get into trouble.
I wish ‘just saying no' was enough of a deterrent, but it's not. As parents, we have to accept that and think about what our teens really need to know - how much is too much? Martha wanted to get high, not die.
I waited 40 minutes at the hospital for her to arrive as an emergency team at the lakeside gave her life-saving treatment. I pleaded with the universe to save my girl, rocking myself as I sat alone in the family room. It was cold and grey, and my world was collapsing around me.
Two nurses glided beside me and softly whispered that she'd arrived. I hoped she'd be recovering, that I could go in and tell her off for being so stupid, but as I entered the crash room I knew Martha was gone. She was grey. I shouted: "she's dead, she's dead already", as the crash team did what they could to bring her back. Martha didn't get a second chance. I
never got to tell her off.
The loss I feel is equivalent to the love I have for her – an unquantifiable loss, a loss that left my ribcage stripped empty and open to the elements. If my love for her was any less, my loss wouldn't be so great – so I embrace it.
What has become clear to me since Martha's death is that prohibition does not work. It's outdated and idealistic, and does not prevent people taking drugs. All it does is push them under the table, making everything unquantifiable and increasing the dangers. Many people fear that legal regulation means a free-for-all, that it's the same as saying 'if you can't beat 'em, join 'em' - but actually it's the smart option. More than four decades-worth of prohibition has only increased access, and even the government's research now shows it has done nothing to limit levels of usage.
I wish 'just saying no' was enough of a deterrent, but it's not. As parents, we have to accept that and think about what our teens really need to know - how much is too much? Martha died of an accidental overdose. She wanted to get high, not die.
Drugs education will always fall short until there's a label on that bottle. All drugs need to be treated as pharmaceuticals - labelled, with the ingredients listed, the necessary dosage information, and how to minimise the risks involved. It would mean that there was a duty of care; a line of responsibility, and information about where stock is held. Legal regulation means controlled, not increased, availability - if under-18s did get hold of drugs intended for adults, they would be better protected and the levels of harm would be reduced. If drugs packaging had the right information on it, and had I been able to talk to Martha about what she was doing and how to keep herself safer, things might have been different. She'd probably have come out of her dabbling phase unharmed, and I would still have her with me.
I feel helpless as I talk to MPs, and see how reluctant most of them are to disclose their true views and feelings on anything to do with drugs. Very few are brave enough. The argument that moving away from prohibition would endanger children is potent and emotive – and politicians play on it. They're more worried about losing votes than listening to people like me. I feel like saying to them, "come and stand by Martha's grave and tell me that prohibition works". Despite the recent Home Office report, which showed that there is no obvious link between tough laws and levels of illegal drug use, David Cameron maintains that legalising drugs would 'send out the wrong message'. But the current approach hasn't worked, and it never will. My daughter died under the current legislation, and many more have died since - 2,000 people in England and Wales last year alone. Isn't this loss of precious lives an indicator that the law is way past its sell-by date and in need of urgent reform?
We can all agree that our drug laws should be based on evidence of what will keep our children as healthy and safe as possible. Thanks to an e-petition led by Caroline Lucas MP, a parliamentary debate was held a couple of weeks ago, asking whether the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act should be reviewed. On the day, there was a unanimous cross-party yes; this fills me with hope that we can finally start to have a grown-up discussion about how best to safeguard future generations. Until we do this, there will always be another Martha.
Anne-Marie has helped launched a new project, 'Anyone's child: Families for Safer Drug Control' - you can find out more and donate if you wish, here.
By Anne-Marie Cockburn
I think I remember reading about your beautiful daughter in the Guardian.
I am really sorry for your loss.
I'm not sure what the answer is. But, it's clear that drug policy is not working.
I don't really know what legalisation would do. Surely, there would still be dealers and illegal drugs around.
Best of luck with your project. I hope politicians listen to you.
Sorry for your loss
I don't think prohibition works either, my daughter dabbles and I drive myself insane worrying. My first thought on reading your words is to show dd, maybe another mothers words will reach her. Maybe not but I'll try. (Once I've stopped sobbing, your words have hit me like a stone wall)
My feeling though is that legalising these drugs will mean someone, somewhere will have to decide that people like our children can have them and that's not ok is it? Who would say how much, how often? How would those measures be governed? Prohibition doesn't work, that much is painfully clear but what is a workable solution is a massive question.
I am so, so sorry for your loss. I'm sitting here with tears in my eyes, imagining the horror you've been through. Martha was so beautiful.
I know prohibition doesn't work. People, young and old, will always take drugs. Better regulation and information might help prevent deaths. and heartache.
Hi, I was terrified when Martha started to dabble. Speak to these guys (or check out their website)
www.release.org.uk/basic-harm-reduction - they offer good, sound advice. My book may also help reach through to your precious girl, it's called 5,742 Days and it documents my first 102 days without Martha. Legalising drugs is the smart option, not the soft option as criminals are currently running them. They need to be treated as any other pharmaceuticals are. xx
Fantastic post, I couldn't agree more. I've read about your beautiful daughter before, her story is so moving and you are very brave. If only our politicians had one inch of your strength! Good luck
Thank you, I will look at both. I certainly don't think it's a soft option, just a very complex one. The people peddling this stuff need combating. I can't really speak about them tbh, I'm too angry.
I'm so very, very sorry for your tragic loss. Martha was beautiful.
Years ago, I was friends with someone who died after taking ecstasy. Such a waste of a life. I agree with you that the drug laws are not working. It's time for things to change.
Thank you for this moving post and sharing Martha with us. I am so sorry for your loss.
I agree completely with your message and your work towards changes in drug policy. Our daughter died of leukaemia when she was 9, 2 years ago, and now we have other parent friends who were bereaved by drugs, both illegal and so-called legal highs. The pain of this journey is, indeed, indescribable.
You are not without support, both in your work towards change and in your grief.
Much love to you.
I agree. Prohibition has never worked. It's so sad that people have to die for someone to notice. So sorry for your loss. I can't imagine what you've been through.
I very much agree with you and support your viewpoint. I hope you are listened to, it's an issue most politicians are deeply afraid of. I am truly so sorry for the loss of lovely Martha.
Annmarie, as the mother of two daughters, one almost 15, your post has moved me to tears. I work with young people as well and they are so fragile, so full of potential, deserve so much better from life.
It's clear just say no works about as well to reduce drugs harm as removing sex education does to stop teenage pregnancy. I remember a girl I knew dying almost 20 years ago in the first spate of ecstasy deaths, and still we lose our young people.
I don't know the answer but I know that honest education is certainly needed, we cannot continue to allow children to die in order to satisfy our ideological need to criminalise drug use (as opposed to dealing), thus effectively deregulating the entire industry into the hands of those out to make a quick buck at any expense.
I am so, so, so sorry for the loss of your beautiful child.
No solutions here but just wanted to say how sorry I am for the loss of your beautiful daughter . Best of luck with your aims.
I'm incredibly touched by all the beautiful messages I've received tonight regarding my precious Martha. Sharing her with the world makes me feel like an 'active' mother again. Thank you all so much for being so lovely to me and for helping me to find the strength to carry on campaigning to garner a safer society for all of our futures.
such a moving story. i work with young children and regardless as to what they ask i try to answer as openly as honest as possible (some are as young as 3). with regards to drugs, you're absolutely right.. the current policy is failing painfully and the consequences are horrific. change and reform should be continuous with politicians, specifically when topics involve death and heartache. i truly wish you all the best with your campaign and sit here watching my 5 month old sleep wondering if this big bad world will change in time for her childhood.
i hope each day brings a little ray of sunshine for you. best wishes x
A very sad and moving story, and I think you're absolutely right. Teens/young people will always experiment... Acting on pride (as seems to be what Cameron says) is idealistic and chimerical, people taking drugs may be a problem, but it is a tiny problem compared to people dying from doing it. If It's impossible to avoid the former (which I think it pretty much is!) then we need to do something to make it safer.
I hope you find some brightness in your life following the tragedy.
My heart has just froze reading this, fears for my children future . You are so right about legalising , giving them correct guidelines. Thank you for sharing.
Im so sorry for your loss. You're an incredible mother for finding the strength to carry on and campaign. I'm trying not to imagine what you have been through,but I am. I'm trying not to think of my 3 yr old daughter or reflect on what I know as a youth worker, but I can't help it. Please keep up your good work. Sending heartfelt best wishes xx
I too remember reading about Martha in the Guardian - you have written such a moving story, it really shows the heartbreak of losing a child to drugs. I wish every teenager could read your book.
I completely agree that we need to change the drug laws. They don't work. All we do is make people mix with criminals and take their chance that the drugs they have bought are safe to take.
Smoking, alcohol and pharmaceutical drugs probably kill more people than recreational drugs (I am guessing here - no idea of the figures), but we are happy for them to be sold legally and just warn people of the risks involved.
I believe that if we decriminalise drugs, as well as stopping unnecessary deaths such as Martha's, it would also help stop the downward spiral that so many people get into.
What a heartbreaking story, thank you for having the strength to share it.
I agree completely with legalisation of drugs for many reasons chief amongst which is for the very reason you gave Martha - that without the regulation legalisation brings people just don't know what they're taking and scummy dealers will cut drugs with anything to make more money.
Being able to check safe dosage, ingredients and possible side effects would give people the confidence to ask for help when things do go wrong.
What surprises me about your story is that you and Martha seemed to have had a wonderfully honest relationship - you always think that this happens in families where they can't talk. It just proves education alone is not enough.
Keep up the pressure on the politicians, you have a lot of support and you never know what the next election may bring. Maybe appeal to Westminster greed and point out the taxes they could gain!
Best wishes for the future.
I have a relative who's life has been ruined - stolen in a way - by that so-called 'safe' drug, cannabis, and I couldn't agree with you more. They are still alive, but totally incapacitated by mental illnesses. Things might be very different if the strength and composition of the drugs had been known at the time. At least my relatives' parents could have acted knowledgeably and more proactively. It's a crime that this archaic system is allowed to continue, putting lives at risk and decimating families.
I'm so sorry about Martha and support your campaign wholeheartedly.
I absolutely agree with you. I don't know what the answer is but something has to change. I think you are such a wonderfully brave Mother for doing this. So sorry that you lost your Martha
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