This year is the 50th anniversary of Release, the UK's centre of expertise on drugs and drugs law. To celebrate, they are hosting the Museum of Drug Policy in London from the 3rd to the 5th of November – a free event for which VICE is a media partner. To find out more, click here.
In 1967, during the Summer of Love, Caroline Coon met fellow art student Rufus Harris after a demonstration she'd helped organise. Coon wanted to stop the News of the World distributing papers because, as she tells me 50 years later, "They were going to besmirch the character of Mick Jagger because he had been arrested for being in possession of drugs. So we lay in the street outside to stop the lorries and, at the end, found ourselves sitting under Eros in Piccadilly Circus. After a demonstration you can feel very useful, and I said to Rufus, 'Come to my studio tomorrow and let's see what we can do.'"
They founded Release shortly after, a 24-hour drugs and free legal advice charity. Their accompanying hotline was the world's first, and in 2017 – half a century later – around 6,000 people a year contact Release for support from around the UK.
"I knew that you could have a 24-hour emergency telephone service because, as a child of a rather dysfunctional family, I was rather depressed in my childhood and had rung the Samaritans when I had felt suicidal," says Coon. "I also knew that Release had to be 24 hours because police were busting youths in the middle of the night."
Until she stepped away from Release in 1971, Coon's roles were myriad: "I was trying to articulate what we stood for to a rather hostile press. I was going out to raise money because anti-prohibition and championing the normal use of drugs was not popular. So we had to rely on progressive wealthy people to fund us [including members of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones]. What was so useful, though, was that Rufus and I were co-founders, and Rufus being male on the whole and I being female on the whole, we were like the head of this family where hundreds of distressed young people could drop in to get advice and find comfort."
At the time, possession of even small amounts of cannabis could incur prison sentences of a few years, so if contacted by someone who'd been arrested Release would connect them with empathetic pro bono solicitors. These solicitors would then receive payment from the government in the form of legal aid. This is a service Release still provides today.
Coon is keen to stress, however, that despite the perceived freewheeling nature of the 60s, Release's mission has always been focused. "Right from the start, we believed that human beings like and need to have fun and be intoxicated sometimes," she says. "We thought this was a human, social norm. We also realised that recreational drugs were an adult pleasure but that young people would always experiment, so for us the question was, 'How do we do drugs safely, causing no harm to others and the least harm to oneself?'"
Throughout the 70s this mission continued at the heart of Release. Their work, however, expanded to include issues like under-age runaways, homelessness and abortion advice. Their festival outreach also became key. Bob Nightingale, who worked at Release from 1974 to 1982, tells me of his beginnings: "I was at the Windsor Festival and came across this girl crying in the middle of Windsor Great Park in the middle of the night. After talking to her it became pretty obvious she was on LSD and out of her box, so I took her to the Release tent because that was what you did. Then she wouldn't let me go – I'd become her safety blanket – so I pottered around doing stuff, and they said, 'Come back, you're useful!'"
Nightingale remembers how ubiquitous Release was at festivals. "We did all the Stonehenges, all the Glastonburys, Deeply Vale, Watchfield in Oxford. Any festival that was going to attract more than a few hundred, we'd have a tent," he says. "Drug overdoses weren't common, but they weren't that rare. We did save lives."
With police not permitted inside most festivals back then, Release often had to deal with violent attendees themselves. "I took a knife off somebody once," says Nightingale. "He'd already stabbed two people – not to death, only jabbed them. I went over and said, 'Stop threatening people, mate,' like you do, and he looked through me and said, 'You got me on this planet, you get me off it.' So I said, 'Give me the knife and I'll get you off the planet within half an hour,' and he did. Then I stuck him in the back of an ambulance."
Nightingale continues: "The bloke with the axe was better. He'd hit someone with an axe and was rampaging around, and he'd gone into this hut. We wondered how we were going to get it off him. Of course, the bloke I was with turned out to be too scared to go in, so I went in there to leap on him and he was snoring on the floor."
Nightingale suddenly becomes a bit sombre. "We had a few people taking heroin then. Heroin got more as the years went on. When it got to the 80s, really it was spilling out. That wasn't the old hippie festivals. All of a sudden it was different."
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In 1976, Release again expanded their services to include support for the burgeoning squatting movement. Christian Wolmar, who worked at Release from 1976 to 1979, was involved as their Housing Advisor. Like Nightingale, Wolmar came to Release through personal experience. "I was squatting myself in Brixton," he explains, adding that there were a "few thousand" squatters in London at the time who would ring up Release for advice, resulting in "an advisory service which still exists, that had a handbook [Squatters and the Law] that stretched to about 15 editions".
In 1977, Release published a report into the use of police powers under the Misuse of Drugs Act. Tactics described in the report, like zero-tolerance policing and intensive use of stop and search, contributed to mass civil unrest across Britain in 1981, including riots between police and the impoverished black communities of Brixton, Handsworth in Birmingham, Chapeltown in Leeds and Toxteth in Liverpool.
"Police would stop and search anyone they had an image of who was on drugs, so long hair or black," remembers Bob Nightingale. "When I had long hair I used to get stopped all the time. You only really notice it when it stops. I had all my hair cut off, as I got lice in Morocco, and when I got back to England shopkeepers would serve me and the police stopped stopping me in my car. Of course, if you're black you can't suddenly turn white."
In the 80s, heroin ravaged Britain, along with the spread of hepatitis and HIV. This led to needle exchanges being legalised in 1986. Then, in 1988, Release received their first calls about ecstasy. "We'd sometimes get them from people who'd say, 'My mates are all going out taking E and I feel I've got to and I don't want to. I get depression, I get anxiety,'" says Claire Robbins, a drugs nurse who started at Release in 1994 and still volunteers today. "I'd help them tell their friends, or maybe pretend they'd taken an E when they hadn't, just not to feel that pressure."
Robbins was also involved with Safer Clubbing, an initiative set up by Release in 1998 to provide first aid and education to a generation of partygoers. "We'd often be looking after people who'd taken far too much and just chatting with them," Robbins explains, "or taking them and dancing, helping them to enjoy their drugs rather than worrying about the mess they'd left at home. Or maybe they were having thoughts about something that'd happened in their childhood, because ecstasy does open you up, so all our volunteers would be trained to manage things like that."
Release worked extensively with free party organisers Exodus Collective in Luton, training them to do outreach at their raves. They also provided support at other events, like fetish club nights. "People were dying from indoor venues, not from the outdoors," says Robbins, "but the illegal raves had a quite good record of looking after each other. There was much more of an idea that people looked after each other there, and in the clubs it was all about selling alcohol and not providing water."
Robbins remembers the effect Release's outreach had at raves and festivals: "We were so well received by the punters at those venues. They loved us. People would spend the whole night in our tent being looked after and send us cards afterwards saying they'd had the best time. You'd think, 'The best time sitting in a chill-out tent? That's so sad.' But we'd usually have our own sound system and our own decor, and it was much more relaxed. We were much more personal with people, rather than clinical, and I think it's the personal approach that works."
"It was a grassroots, organic, anarchistic way of educating," says Robbins, "rather than a psychiatrist saying someone who's using ecstasy is this or that, or has an anti-social personality disorder. It felt practical and useful."
In more recent years Release has begun advising on the issue of sex work, publishing in 2005 a comprehensive booklet on the rights of women and men in the industry, Sex Workers and the Law. They also help sex workers complete such tricky tasks as declaring themselves for income tax. In 2013 they then published a report in partnership with the London School of Economics proving that very little had changed when it came to the policing of drugs. According to the report, black people were six times likelier to be stopped and searched, despite government statistics saying that white people were likelier to use. As well as that, black people received much harsher penalties.
"I'm a big believer in recognising the dignity of everyone, and that our clients are often treated elsewhere in a very cavalier, disrespectful way, where their dignity and autonomy aren't respected."
Release's main concern today is the skyrocketing number of drug deaths around the UK. With the figure hitting an all-time high, and with female deaths increasing by 95 percent in the last decade, Release's Executive Director Niamh Eastwood tells VICE about the devastation: "There's been a 109 percent increase in heroin-related deaths in the last four years – over 1,200 people dying of heroin or morphine-related causes in the last year alone. It now exceeds traffic fatalities, and our view is that if this was any other section of society, there'd be uproar and demands for a coordinated national public health response."
This can in part be traced back to the Cameron-Clegg coalition's move away from a harm-reduction approach to recovery to an abstinence-based one in 2010. Eastwood explains the effect this ideology has and how it's enforced. "On the helpline over the last five years we've been increasingly receiving calls on a regular basis – I'm talking daily – from people who are in treatment on methadone scripts, who are being told that they have to reduce their methadone. It would appear that these are not clinical decisions but rather policy decisions; that some commissioning services are being required to demonstrate their outcomes based on the number of people exiting treatment drug-free. So if you like there's a financial motivation for treatment providers to get people out of treatment."
Release have been briefing MPs on this, as well as putting forward questions to other members of government, but as shown by last year's Psychoactive Substances Act, drug policy only seems to be getting more dangerous, creating the climate that Release celebrate its 50th anniversary in.
There are currently 12 employees at Release and between 20 to 25 volunteers at any one time. After 50 years, Eastwood is certain what Release's biggest achievement has been: "Fifty years… does that make sense?"
She adds, "I'm incredibly proud to work with a team of people who go out and try to help people on a daily basis. The fact that we get people who are homeless housed. That we get people's benefits in place. I'm a big believer in recognising the dignity of everyone, and that our clients are often treated elsewhere in a very cavalier, disrespectful way, where their dignity and autonomy aren't respected. I love the fact that our legal services speak to that, that it's really just about realising the rights of people."
To find out more about Release's free 50th anniversary event, click here.