The bereaved mother of a teenager who died after taking ecstasy has backed the call by a police boss to set up safe injecting areas for drug users in North Wales.
Schoolgirl Martha Fernbeck was just 15 when she suffered a cardiac arrest in July 2013 after swallowing half a gram of 90 per cent pure MDMA powder in the city’s Hinksey Park.
Her mother, Anne-Marie Cockburn, who has since been a tireless campaigner for the legal regulation of drugs, was one of the keynote speakers at a special summit on the decriminalisation of drugs hosted by North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner Arfon Jones at Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground on Wednesday evening.
Mr Jones is an advocate of treating drug misuse as a health issue rather than a criminal matter.
The event was organised by the charity Anyone’s Child, an international network of families who say their lives have been wrecked by current drug laws and are now campaigning to change them.
The aim of the event which attracted a full house of 70 people was to promote a discussion about what a new approach to drugs could mean for Wrexham’s families and communities.
A lively question and answer session followed the speeches, with the vast majority of the audience supporting the idea of regulating drugs.
They also agreed that resources should be focused on the number of people harmed by drugs rather than the number who use drugs and that people who cause no harm to others should not be prosecuted.
Mr Jones, who spent 30 years as a front line police officer, described how in a bid to tackle its own drug problem the city of Geneva in Switzerland had introduced safe injecting facilities – known as SIFs – which give users a safe and controlled environment where they can go to inject, snort or smoke drugs.
He said: “I believe that SIFs, or as we call them Enhanced Drug Consumption Rooms, are the way forward here.
“I have no doubt that problems encountered by local residents of Rhosddu with drug use in this town could be alleviated by having such a facility.
“They would make it easier for the user to take drugs and take it away from the public view thereby increasing confidence and reducing fear. They would also address the matter of drugs litter and all equipment could be disposed of safely in the facility.”
Mr Jones also called for further pilots of Heroin Assisted Treatment in which medicinal heroin is prescribed for users.
Trials carried out in three areas of England in 2009 had been particularly impressive, he said, with a 75 per cent reduction in the use of street heroin and crime committed by users also showing a significant fall.
Speaker Anne-Marie Cockburn, from Oxford, who was a founder member of Anyone’s Child, said: “I agree with Mr Jones about the safe injecting facilities. They would get rid of the paraphernalia of drugs and get users away from parks and open spaces.
“A lot of drug users have complex needs. The SIFs would give them access to clean facilities and they wouldn’t have to worry about the stigma of getting access to help.
“I also agree about the Heroin Assisted Treatment because it would help users to get away from crime and receive the support they need such as clean and sterilized equipment.”
In her own speech Ms Cockburn spoke movingly about the pain of losing her young daughter Martha who she described as a bright and clever girl who wanted to become an engineer.
“She told me she took ecstasy to make her feel happy and after she died I found an online search she’d done to find ways of taking it safely,” she said.
“She wanted to get high bit she didn’t want to die.”
She added: “By telling my story, hopefully others will learn and take part in this important dialogue about regulating the supply of drugs.
“Every day 50 people die as the result of taking drugs but there is hope. There is a lot of change with drug policy internationally and I believe it’s only a matter of time before common sense prevails and the UK catches up and we are freed from the rusty shackles of outdated laws which do not keep our children safe.”
Another speaker at the event was Neil Woods, a former undercover drugs officer and spokesperson for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) whose book Good Cop, Bad War is currently being turned into a TV series by the makers of Line of Duty.
He described how over the years he had helped to bring to justice numerous gangsters involved in the supply of dangerous drugs.
But he added: “After 14 years of doing the job the penny eventually dropped that the end doesn’t justify the means and although I must have put various people in jail for over a thousand years it had hardly any effect on the supply of heroin.
“I realised it was futile and that policing drugs just causes organised crime, which controls its supply, to become more violent.
“I feel duty bound to let people know about this, which is why I wrote the book and became involved in LEAP along with people like ex-MI5 officers, chief constables and other former undercover cops who have all come to the same conclusions as I have.”
The Police and Crime Commissioner had earlier told the audience: “I believe that the war on drugs has been lost many years ago and that we need a new approach to dealing with problematic drug use. I have felt for some time that the current prohibitive stance is extremely damaging to individuals and their communities.”
Mr Jones described how he recently visited Portugal to look at the way drug use was treated by agencies there and said he agreed with their approach which is to treat addiction as a disease and not a crime.
He explained: “What is key in Portugal is that it has, along with decriminalisation, made problematic drug use a public health issue.
“People found in possession of drugs appear in front of a dissuasion commission which decides whether or not they are a problematic user. If not, then most of the time there will be no sanction against them.
“The five or 10 per cent of users who are deemed problematic are then referred to either harm reduction or treatment services depending on the user’s desire to continue using or to recover.
“The one startling statistic that shows me this system works is that only four per million people die of a result of taking drugs in Portgual compared with 48 per million in the UK.”
Mr Jones also raised the issue of NPS or psychoactive substances – known as “zombie” drugs – which recently dominated the headlines when users were pictured in a trance-like state in Wrexham town centre.
He said: “I believe the UK government missed a trick and should have regulated NPS and the head shops where they were being sold as legal highs up to 18 months ago rather than prohibiting their use when new legislation came into force.
“We are now in a position where NPS supply has gone underground and, as with other drugs, are now firmly in the control of organized crime groups.”
Mr Jones said the UK government should be lobbied for changes in drug policy but stressed that decriminalisation does not mean legalization.