It's clear that UK drugs policy isn't up to the job when so many lives are devastated, says Ros Wynne-Jones

A few days ago I was clearing out a cupboard when I found a book of poetry and paintings by my friend Jake Coe, which his family had gathered together after his death.

Jake was a wonderful, thoughtful, creative man and a great dad, who also happened to have battled a heroin addiction for most of his adult life.

Jake had at least five clean years before he died in the summer of 2014.

He took up martial arts and psychotherapy, went to Narcotics Anonymous meetings, meditated, ran, drew, wrote and poured love into his young family.

When he relapsed and died, his mum said he’d been the happiest he’d been – he was in a loving relationship with a baby son, and he was just about to qualify as an art psychotherapist.

The same day I found the book, Jake’s mum Rose and former partner Cara bravely addressed a group of MPs in Parliament at a cross-party event on Britain’s failed drug policy. One by one families from the Anyone’s Child campaign told MPs how it’s not just medicinal cannabis law that is cruel and outdated.

Perhaps more surprisingly, a series of serving police officers – some of whom had spent their careers infiltrating drug gangs – then got up and told them the same.

In the UK, someone dies every three hours from a drug overdose. The UK now records the highest number of deaths from overdose in Europe, including the record 934 people who died last year in Scotland as a direct result of taking drugs.

Rose’s son Roland

Drug gangs are only increasing their grip through ‘county lines’ drug-running, where criminals in London and big cities control the supply in seaside and rural towns.

The spike in knife and gun violence is in part linked to the violence ­associated with these gangs.

This emergency has just become greater because the spectre of Fentanyl – now responsible for around half the drug deaths in the United States – is hitting our shores. Around 100 times stronger than heroin or crack, Britain already has the largest dark net sales of Fentanyl in Europe, and 31 police forces have reported fatalities.

Where other countries are moving away from a hardline approach and towards treating addiction – support not punish – Britain’s rhetoric is only getting tougher. This has become even more pointless now that a single envelope of Fentanyl can be diluted 100 times to make several million doses of street heroin.

Neil Woods, an undercover policeman who spent years inside drug gangs, said prohibition had utterly failed. He said Britain should immediately expand heroin prescribing to enable people to seek help and massively disrupt organised crime.

Several detectives spoke of the harm done every day by taking addicts into custody instead of helping them.

Cop Neil Woods

The question is which politicians will possibly be brave enough to take on a subject that is political poison. Green leader Caroline Lucas, the SNP’s Ronnie Cowan and Tory Crispin Blunt have recently been joined by Jeff Smith, the Labour MP for Manchester Withington – who comes from the rare background of having been a DJ before he went into Parliament. He is now the co-chairman of the All Party Group on Drug Policy Reform.

“When the UK holds the grim title of being the drug overdose capital of Europe, it’s clear our drug policies are failing,” he says.

“But while our international partners are taking steps to reduce the harm associated with drug use, our government is doubling down on zero tolerance rhetoric based on policies drawn up almost 60 years ago.

“It’s time to take control of this issue and start protecting people.” Jake’s mum Rose told MPs about the heartbreak of losing two sons to heroin and how the law had failed her family at every turn.

She begged MPs to see drugs as a health emergency not a criminal problem. When her son Roland was dying, slumped in his friend’s bathroom, “they delayed calling A&E because of fear,” she says. “That fear should be unnecessary.” Jake never got over his brother’s death.

Now my friend Cara, his partner, whose birthday it was yesterday, worries what to tell Jake’s son, who was a toddler when his dad died four years ago. “What do I tell him about his dad? Jake wasn’t a bad person. He was a person with an illness.”

Anne-Marie Cockburn with picture of daughter Martha

Another parent, Anne-Marie Cockburn, spoke about her 15-year-old daughter Martha, who died after taking ecstasy. She quietly placed Martha’s white Converse trainers on the table. “When the police returned Martha’s clothes they gave me back her empty shoes which I’ve brought with me here today.”

She paused to read a headline about a 15-year-old girl dying from an ecstasy overdose. “That’s not my daughter,” she says. “That’s from yesterday, another child in Tavistock. More empty shoes.”

For a moment, that meeting at the House of Commons felt like a turning point on a long road. It has to be because since Jake died in 2014, the pairs of empty shoes left by our broken drugs policy would have more than filled the room.


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