The war on drugs is killing women
In July 2013, 15 year old Martha Fernback died after taking half a gram of MDMA powder – more widely known as ecstacy – that was 91 per cent pure.
Her death differs from the thousands of other drug-related deaths that occurred in the same year, because of her mother Anne-Marie Cockburn’s unusual response.
Martha wanted to get high, said Cockburn, not die – but the war on drugs killed her.
And since Martha’s death, Anne-Marie Cockburn’s refusal to blame drug dealers, friends, or Martha herself has gained considerable media coverage, both positive and negative.
The positive responses focus on Cockburn’s ability to take her daughter’s death and use it to confront the prevalence of drugs in the UK in a way that is practical and realistic.
Rather than spiralling into self-pity and pointing fingers at the closest potential figures of blame, Cockburn has targeted what she believes to be the true culprit: the government, and its war on drugs.
Martha’s death, she believes, would not have occurred if the UK legalised and regulated drugs, and offered neutral and reliable information to children in schools.
Martha’s death was a result of a mixture of the two – when she bought her 91 per cent MDMA, Martha believed it would be the usual street purity of around 58 per cent.
The often misleading and scaremongering information about drugs that is made available in schools meant that she had no way of knowing otherwise.
When combined, these factors made her vulnerable.
The war on drugs, like any war, needs victims.
And increasingly these victims seem to be teenagers, specifically young girls and women.
In society, there are certain attributes that are prescribed to young females, all of which seem to focus around the idea of purity and innocence.
Martha Fernback’s death was no different; many of the initial reports focused on how shocking the death of this ‘angelic’ well-educated Oxford girl was, as well as placing blame on the male friend who sold her the drugs.
Cockburn’s response to her daughter’s death seems to be an attempt to undo these stereotypes.
On the website she has dedicated to her daughter, Cockburn states that Martha wanted to “get high – [she] didn’t want to die”.
In general, society still does not want to accept that young girls and women have desires that can sometimes be dangerous, or ‘unpure’.
We are still so fixated on the concept of girlhood being inextricably linked to innocence.
It is more acceptable for men to use drugs, or to put themselves in dangerous situations as we have been conditioned to expect this from them, whereas women are meant to be purveyors of sensibility and ‘doing the right thing’.
One only needs to look at the disgustingly prevalent victim-blaming towards women that still exists in society to confirm this.
As Cockburn so simply put it, Martha wanted to experiment with drugs. She was not forced or coerced into it. She was not a victim in the drug-taking situation; as far as Cockburn knows, it was completely her daughter’s choice to take the drug.
What is tragic about the situation is not that Martha acted on her desire – as young girls and women invariably will – it is that society still refuses to view girls and women as people with desires, who do not conform to the outdated concepts of femininity and womanhood that still exist.
The other tragedy is that the war on drugs – with its criminalisation of most drugs and scaremongering drug education in schools – is set up in such a way that, although it has dangerous implications for all teenagers and young people, seems to be negatively impacting young women most strongly.
The negative responses to Cockburn’s activism are slightly unsettling, as they focus less on the practicality of her ideas regarding drug regulation and more on the fact that, simply, she is a woman and a mother who is not openly crying out for the banning and further criminalisation of drugs.
In a society that seems to be more focused than ever on promoting the idea of punishment and retribution, of stone-cold revenge, Cockburn’s insistence on working with the man who supplied her daughter with drugs instead of hating him is something that many people seem to find hard to swallow.
In society, certain attributes and personality traits are applied to women, specifically mothers. Women are expected to be soft, to be emotional and empathetic, to be warm and caring and gentle. This applies even more so to women who are pregnant or who have children, and it is why women who do not wish to have children are often marginalised and looked down upon.
It is why female predators and killers and drug users, although rarer than their male counterparts, are focused on and harshly demonised in the media.
We expect this behaviour from men, society seems to be saying, but not from women. Not from you. If these women are not demonised, they are viewed as damaged or troubled, signposts of ‘innocence lost’.
These stereotypes are all equally as damaging.
The idea that women have to behave in a certain way, or possess certain attributes in order to confirm to society’s ideals of femininity, is problematic enough – however, it is even more distressing when a perceived lack of femininity or motherliness is used to dismiss women’s opinions and actions.
Anne-Marie Cockburn is a mother, and a woman. She is also bravely and tirelessly fighting to diminish the taboos that exist in society regarding drug use, and specifically drug use by young women.
Martha was young, white, well-educated, and middle-class. Despite possessing these privileges, she still became a victim of the war on drugs. This, Cockburn points out, shows why the war is not working.
What are the implications of the war on drugs and Martha’s death in relation to those who are less privileged, who receive a lower standard of education, and who potentially have a wider access to drugs?
If it could happen to Martha, it could happen to anyone. And as long as the war on drugs carries on, young women will continue to be its most vulnerable targets.