The new Psychoactive Substance Act comes into force today making ‘legal highs’ illegal. Over 500 points of sale, including more than 350 Head shops, websites and other retail outlets will close down so that young people will no longer be duped into thinking that ‘legal’ means safe. Our children will now come to realise the dangers associated with the 100 substances on the open market until today, many of which are highly addictive, and able to cause heart attacks, psychosis and even death. The new law comes into force following a relentless seven year campaign by the Angelus Foundation which I founded in memory of my daughter Hester Stewart.
Hester was my youngest daughter, a 21 year old medical student at Sussex University, which is the other side of the Downs from my House in Brighton. She was a student mentor as well as a very enthusiastic Cheer Leader. She sometimes called to say “Mummy, come and watch us practice tonight and by the way what are you making for dinner?”. She was a wonderful daughter who was much loved by all those whose lives she touched. Very sadly, she was given a legal high after an awards dinner by a ‘friend’ on 25th April 2009, and, coupled with the few drinks she had consumed during the evening, it shut down her respiratory system and she stopped breathing forever. Two Police Women appeared on my doorstep the following morning to relay the devastating news that broke my heart and the hearts of her family and close friends.
Probably because of my profile in the media as a wellness expert, author and broadcaster and the fact that Hester’s was such a star and not a drug taker, the story became irresistible to the media. We got tipped off by the Telegraph that we were about to be ‘door stepped’ by the press and indeed they camped out on our doorstep for the following four days and nights whilst we were hidden in a hotel nearby.
I felt like I was living a nightmare, ripped out of real life and plummeted into a dark place filled with agony, pain and unfamiliar surroundings. I prayed I would wake up and real life would resume, but alas, that was not to be. Richard Edwards, the then Crime Correspondent from the Telegraph accompanied us to the hotel for those few days. It was during that time that we discovered that Hester had been given a substance called GBL, which I found out from Google was paint stripper. I also discovered that it had been banned for human consumption in many other countries around the world four years before and that several European countries had run awareness campaigns 18 months before, in conjunction with night clubs, charities and the police highlighting the fact that GBL + Alcohol = Death.
Jackie Smith, the Home Secretary in the UK at the time, had been urged by the European Committee on Drug Dependency Monitoring as well as the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to raise awareness about the dangers of GBL in a similar way to our European counterparts, but she chose to take no action. I felt angry and aggrieved when I discovered her inertia as I felt certain that Hester, who absolutely adored life and helping others, would still be alive if she and her friend had known about the dangers. It was my anger and devastating loss that fuelled my passion to campaign to raise awareness so that other families wouldn’t have to experience a similar life sentence.
I was asked to write a book about the death of Hester, what loss of a child means to a mother and, in line with my previous 26 self-help books, A – Z of coping with grief. Whilst I gave it serious thought I came to the conclusion that my daughter would have been in favour of me doing something to help the living instead of wallowing in my own loss. So instead of curling up in a ball, really choosing to swap places with Hester, I set up the Angelus Foundation, made myself get out of bed each day with the determination I would somehow save lives in her memory as she would have done if she had lived to qualify as a doctor.
I was completely clueless about how I was going to achieve my objective, except to say that my first stop was to meet with Jackie Smith, the Home Secretary, and ask her to account for her lack of action. I also knew I needed to do more research and talk to medical experts to expand my understanding. I felt utterly shocked as a knowledgeable health care professional that I had no clue what legal highs were until Hester’s death. Even her father who is a medical doctor had no knowledge that chemicals and drugs were being used for recreational purposes purporting to be safe as they were ‘legal’.
During my lifetime I often found myself challenged with many weird and wonderful tasks I hadn’t planned to do, I used to joke that I felt like I was in training for something. I came to realise that all of that had been actually been the dress rehearsal for the next chapter in my life. I needed all the skills I could muster for the wondrous, magical, fulfilling and inspirational journey I was about to embark upon. One that would truly save lives and preserve wellbeing.
There was one key thing that I needed to learn, however, and that was to tune in and trust the Universe. In exchange for losing Hester I seemed to be given an increased perception from helpers who were my ‘higher powers’, or spiritual guides; call them what you will. And the cherry on the cake was that I was certain that Hester was with me in spirit every step of the way. Call me ridiculous if you like, but how else could I have been followed around by multiple TV cameras since day one? Managed to get massive coverage on TV and in the national newspapers and keep the headlines going over six years, some days doing as many as 8 TV interviews in one day? How could the Angelus Foundation have engineered laws to be changed when leading experts said it would never happen? Be introduced to Lady Valerie Corbett who called for helpers? Attract a member of The Royal Family, the Duchess of Kent, as the Patron to the Foundation I eventually set up and four members of The House of Lords? Plus a number of household name celebrities and more world class experts than would eventually completely fill a large Board Room at the Guildhall, given to us on a pro bono basis? I had personal communication with the Prime Minister as well as large numbers of other Ministers over the years and had the honour to become friends and working associates with Mitch, Jane and Janis Winehouse, parents of Amy, and the highly accomplished Vicky Unwin, due to the common losses and objectives to make a difference to the world in memory of our daughters.
The Angelus journey was fuelled by my passion to change the world for other young people, who like Hester were not risk takers, so that they could stay safe, fulfil their life potential and keep families whole. The starting point was zero awareness across the board, with the exception of few key experts, who themselves were grappling with the limited information.
After seven years of relentless campaigning, and law changes we achieved in the meantime, we helped to create a new Bill which was the first Bill mentioned in the Queens Speech in the summer of 2015. The new Psychoactive Substance Act became law today, April 26 2016. That is a huge win for Team Angelus. And today, as a result of the Angelus initiative, the profile about legal highs has been raised beyond belief. Numerous other charities are now raising awareness and undertaking research and Local Authorities are demanding education in their regions.
As a result of my arduous and emotional journey, sometimes working more than 70 hours per week, and the collective efforts of Team Angelus, young people will now survive rather than die, wellbeing will prevail instead of huge numbers of young people becoming mentally ill, and parents will be armed with sufficient knowledge to keep their young safe. I am proud to share my story and hope that, instead of dwelling on the sadness of loss, light bulbs will go on in minds across the world when they realise that they too have the ability to bring about positive change. It’s simply a matter of learning to trust and tune into your inner wisdom, whilst at the same time being brave enough to follow your passions and collaborate without ego to achieve your objectives. As my experience shows, absolutely anything is possible!
Nothing will bring Hester back, but as a result of her passing the Angelus Foundation has saved lives and prevented millions of young people from coming to harm. I am proud of our collective achievement and sincerely thank the wise experts, supporters and funders who supported our mission.