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My dead daughter's shoes

This blog piece was originally a speech delivered by Anne-Marie Cockburn at the Nordic Reform Conference 2017

Hello, I am Martha’s mum. I don’t hear that very much these days, so I say it very proudly in these moments when I can. I am here to represent an incredible group of families from all over the world who campaign with ‘Anyone’s Child: Families for Safer Drug Control’. We tell our stories and do what we can in order to get MPs and policymakers to engage with this subject.

Being a parent without a child is a strange legacy. One that is incredibly lonely, but one where I have found my voice and on behalf of my precious Martha I tell my story in order to prevent anyone else from getting the phonecall that I got.

Who was Martha? Well, she was wondering that too as she reached her 15th birthday and was starting to rebel, as many teenagers do. But to me she was my reason... my purpose... the centre of my world. But I did get the phonecall, so on the 20th of July 2013, after swallowing ½ gm of ecstasy powder that turned out to be 91% pure - my girl died within 3 hours. I’ve been told that what she took was enough for 5-10 people.

My identity felt as though it was wiped away on that fateful July day as I stood beside my girl who was no longer and declared to the world that ‘I’m not a mum anymore’. In the very same hospital I had given birth to her in - some 15 years and 9 months earlier. Now, I am the type of person who doesn’t even take a headache pill, but in that moment I screamed out for medication as I needed to numb myself into oblivion from the agony. I was given diazepam for 6 weeks in order to help me cope and I’m very grateful for that.

As I looked around at the barren landscape of my life in the moment Martha died the words ‘I have a future and I have a life’ came into my head. They were loud and they were clear. I have no explanation for that, but I have taken great comfort in them ever since - a new mantra at the core of me, the seed of hope that I needed in order to carry on alone.

When you live beyond the point of your worst fear actually happening, you’d like to think that you’re invincible and that nothing can ever hurt you again, but every time I hear the news that another teenager has died, it hurts - but what hurts the most is in knowing that their deaths are preventable.

We all know that laws are in place to keep us and our loved ones safe. If the experts recommend the need for change, if the statistics show that deaths are increasing year after year - then surely we should change them? But I am well aware as to how politics work. I know it’s a power and popularity contest where the truth is often ignored and avoided.

Well, I don’t have the luxury of being able to hide from the truth, every day I wake up, the very first second jolts me as I remember that Martha really isn’t here. My truth as I stand here before you as a mother without a child is that the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act (which we’re governed by in the UK) isn’t fit for purpose, it doesn’t serve me well and it certainly did not serve to protect my precious Martha.

This Act is similar to the Nordic ministerial meeting that took place in Stockholm in 1982 whereby they shared their vision for a drug-free society across the nordic countries.

Martha attended one of the best schools in Oxford and was at a stage in her adolescence whereby she was getting a little bit more freedom and with that she was discovering new things. As a parent you talk to your children, you try to help them navigate through each stage in their development and hope that they’ll see sense and not put themselves in the way of danger. But Martha and her friends got to see things I never did when I was their age, she got exposed to things I never experienced in my adolescence. There are very different dangers and risks nowadays to what there were when I was growing up. Yet, we are still governed by the very same laws from 1971.

No responsible parent wants to think of their child takings drugs, but I believe that had Martha taken something that was legally regulated, labelled with ingredients and recommended dosage, she’d still be alive today. Afterall, the difference between poison and medicine is dose.

Martha wanted to get high, but she didn’t want to die. She loved life, she took risks and for most of us we survive the risks we take and live to tell the tale. We look back at our younger selves and wonder how we are still standing, despite the treacherous tapestry of our journey to that point.

How I wish I had known then, what I know now, but by telling my story, painful as it is - hopefully others can learn and engage with this important subject, as every single one of us here can play our part in contributing to this important dialogue in order to create the change that’s so badly needed.

When the police returned Martha’s schoolbag to me a few weeks after she died, it contained her empty shoes which I’ve brought with me today. They are a poignant symbol of her absence - and my way of saying that there’s no-one to fill them.

I’ve spent a few months since Martha died going into schools to do a bit of my own research - to find out what it’s like to be a teenager today. Most of them are truly baffled by the mixed messages they’re getting. They’re told drugs are bad and not to take them - yet they know they can all get their hands on them so very easily.

So to conclude, I believe that modern Society needs something else and it certainly isn’t about giving prohibition any more time to work. It doesn’t work, and it has never worked. No dangerous substance should be left on the black market.

I don’t want to hear any more arguments to the contrary, by people who have had 4 decades to practice their reasons why they continue to support prohibition. Over and over I hear the same debates on TV and radio - the moral argument, the stigma, the finger-pointing and I’m so tired of it. So much talk and so little progress and every day more people die. Somebody’s daughter, or somebody’s son and more pairs of empty shoes.

It is too late for my girl, but I live in hope that your children and your grandchildren will not inherit the rusty shackles of outdated laws that do not keep our loved ones safe.

And this will ensure that they too can share my sentiments and declare: ‘I have a future and I have a life’.


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