Feature War on Drugs

Parents against prohibition: campaigning for drug law reform

BMJ 2017; 357 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.j1876 (Published 19 April 2017) Cite this as: BMJ 2017;357:j1876
  1. Richard Hurley, features and debates editor, The BMJ

Could drug laws be to blame for drug users’ deaths? Some families think so and are determined to influence policy, writes Richard Hurley

When Leah Betts died in 1995 after taking an ecstasy pill at her 18th birthday party, extraordinary media coverage resonated with the “just say no” mantra. Leah’s parents railed against all non-medical drug use, backing new laws to prohibit drugs, circulating a photograph of their comatose daughter in hospital, and running a poster campaign with the words “Sorted: Just one ecstasy tablet took Leah Betts.”

Two decades on, and ordinary families ravaged by drug deaths still attract media attention—but sometimes their messages are very different. Donna May and Anne-Marie Cockburn, for example, blame their daughters’ deaths not on the illegal substances that they had taken but on the laws that did nothing to save them.

As part of the international campaign Anyone’s Child, they protested outside the United Nations in New York last April, during a key meeting to discuss drug misuse worldwide,1 and they’ve given hundreds of media interviews.

Anyone’s Child says it aims to show the human cost of the war on drugs. It is sponsored by the pressure group the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, which wants not just to decriminalise the taking of heroin, cocaine, and cannabis but also to legalise and regulate their supply.

These families say that prohibition stigmatises people who use drugs, impeding their access to information and the treatment that is proved to help in drug dependency. They also believe that enforcement of prohibition encourages riskier drug taking and leads to …

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