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The 'war on drugs' is not working, says mum whose son died after taking ecstasy

Ben Rees, centre, pictured with his mother Nadia and father Huw at his graduation from Swansea University Credit: Nadia Rees / Family photo

Ben Rees was a young man with everything going for him.

The popular 23-year-old from Aberdare had graduated from university, had a job he enjoyed and a girlfriend he loved.

His mum, Nadia, worked in harm reduction, helping people with substance misuse problems.

Perhaps then, Ben doesn’t strike you as someone who would try drugs. But he did, and the result was fatal.

In July 2015, Ben went on holiday to Germany with a group of friends. They were going to a music festival, and the trip began in Berlin.

On the Wednesday evening, Ben and a friend went to a nightclub where he took what he thought was ecstasy, also known as MDMA. By the time he started to feel unwell, he and his friend had become separated.

He was found at a train station by a group of girls who cared for him until he was taken to hospital, where he died of multiple organ failure.

Ben’s mother, Nadia, was at work when her husband called her and told her to come home.

“By the time I got home, I knew he was dead”, she told me. “When parents see these stories, they think ‘oh my son or daughter wouldn’t do that’, but you just don’t know, do you?”

A toxicology report later revealed that the ecstasy Ben had taken also contained PMA - a slow release and highly toxic chemical, with little chance of medics being able to reverse its effects.

What happened to Ben is far from unusual.

Official statistics show drug deaths in Wales and England are at a record high - and growing numbers are dying as a result of taking ecstasy. In 2010 there were 5 deaths. In 2016, there were 32.

Some believe it’s the result of competition amongst European drug makers as to who can create the strongest ecstasy tablets.

The WEDINOS laboratory in Cardiff Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

WEDINOS is part of Public Health Wales and the only laboratory in the UK where users can anonymously submit their drugs for testing. The results will then determine what’s actually in it.

Josie Smith, WEDINOS programme leader, says in the last two years ecstasy has been getting stronger and stronger.

“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in purer but stronger MDMA. The potential for harm scares me", she said.

For decades there has been a global ‘war on drugs’ - making the selling and possession of substances illegal. Nadia feels that the war has been lost - and her son is a victim.

“[Drugs] need to be decriminalised but regulated", she said. "Young people are still using substances and are still putting themselves at risk... Alcohol for instance you read the bottle, you read the can, it tells you the percentage. You go out and buy pills and you don’t know what is the percentage or strength of that pill."

"I think we need to give people information, and choices and clear guidelines", she added. "They need to know exactly what they are taking".

Drug policy is not a devolved matter and the UK Government has given no indication that it intends to alter the law.

But Nadia believes the time has come for a public debate.