The woman who was at the centre of an infamous international drug case, Lorraine Cohen, has died in Auckland.

She died in hospital yesterday afternoon, one of her children confirmed today.

Cohen and her son Aaron were caught smuggling drugs in their underwear in Malaysia in 1985.

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Lorraine was sentenced to death and Aaron to life in prison in a high-profile case.

"She died yesterday afternoon in hospital," said her son, Troy Pericles.

He did not want to comment further.

A family friend said he did not know how Cohen died, just that she was in hospital at the time.

Lorraine and her 18-year-old son Aaron gained worldwide notoriety when they were caught with heroin smuggled in their underwear while boarding a plane at Penang International Airport in Malaysia in 1985. Cohen was 42 at the time.

Under Malaysian law, anyone possessing 15g or more of heroin is considered a dealer and automatically given the death sentence. Authorities found 140g of heroin on Lorraine.

In 1987, Lorraine was sentenced to death. Aaron was sentenced to life imprisonment and six lashes with a rotan cane.

On appeal, the judge accepted that Lorraine was a heavy and regular user and that the heroin was for her own use. Her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

She developed breast cancer while in prison and was hospitalised, but eventually recovered.

She and Aaron were both pardoned after a third attempt and released in 1996, after more than 11 years in prison.

Lorraine Cohen and her son Aaron in court in Penang

Lorraine had started using drugs at an early age. She met and married musician Danni Cohen, and they were both heavy users and would argue in the bathroom over who had more than his or her share.

She cleaned up when she gave birth to Aaron in September 1966, but quickly started using again. Moving to Sydney in the early 1970s, the Cohens became embroiled in the world of drug-dealing - though she tried hard to provide as straight a family environment as possible.

In Paul Little's book Arrested Development - The Aaron Cohen Story, Little wrote: "Lorraine was fastidiously clean, a trait her son has inherited, and their house was famously immaculate, in sharp contrast to the popular image of the seedy junkies' den ... Many addicts and dealers let money slip through their hands like water. Lorraine, by contrast, always ensured there was enough for good clothes and the mortgage. And though it might not have landed at regular meal times, there was always food on the table for the boys, whether she and Danni felt like eating or not."

Little suggested that Lorraine did not introduce heroin to her son, and that her "maternal instincts were not weakened by her lifestyle."

When Danni sobered up and left the family in 1976, Lorraine's life fell apart. She entered a string of violent relationships and resorted to prostitution.

In 1984 Lorraine received a $10,000 inheritance from her mother. She and Aaron flew to Malaysia where they wanted to obtain cheap heroin. They were trying to fly out of Malaysia when they were caught.

She described their time in prison as extremely hard - but she cleaned up by the time she was released.

However, she was worried about how her son would adjust to life on the outside.

In a letter to the Malaysian Pardons Board in 1994, she wrote: "Aaron ... hasn't had a chance to face any of life's challenges and grow with them, so though he is 27 he is still only a teenager mentally. When he is finally released I am sure he will find it a lot harder than me adjusting to living in the outside world. In prison your days are an unchanging routine and you don't even have to think for yourself so readjusting to society when freedom from confinement is granted takes many months and sometimes years to accomplish."

In 2000, when Aaron faced drug charges in Waitakere District Court, Lorraine was in the public gallery to support him.

But by the following year, she had relapsed. She and Aaron were sentenced four years' jail in the High Court at Auckland for a raft of drug related crimes in 2001.

Lorraine Cohen outside the Auckland District Court after she pleaded guilty for possessing heroin. Photo / Dean Purcell

She was released from prison in 2003, but was caught with heroin in a few months later while on parole.

She pleaded guilty to possession of heroin and was sentenced to 100 hours' community service.

The judge took into account her plea and ill health; Lorraine's cancer had returned.

In February this year, aged 70, she told the Herald on Sunday that she was free of cancer and free of drugs - but it was still a struggle.

"It's very hard. It's always in your head. You can clean your body up but getting it out of your brain - you're always looking for that first time again, which never happens."

She said that returning to New Zealand from her jail time in Malaysia was terrifying.

"When I came back I couldn't even walk across the street without holding someone's hand. And you've got to learn all [the technological changes] - banking, driving a car again, even just talking to people."

She was content spending her days doing "whatever I feel like doing".

"I don't have to look after a man or anything, just myself."

Last month Karpal Singh, their Malaysian lawyer who gained them a pardon, died in a car crash in Malaysia. He was 74.