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UK Harm Reduction: The Origins of Release

As drug policy concerns become progressively more salient and relevant to a much larger and increasingly global population, interested people will invariably come across Release’s work. Some may even question, who are Release to speak on these issues?  As a historian of drugs, I feel compelled to answer this question with reference to Release’s origins in the 1960s counterculture as well as the charity’s enduring centrality to the historic and ongoing effort to defend the civil rights of people who use drugs in the UK, and increasingly abroad.

 

Release is born

Founded by art students Caroline Coon and Rufus Harris in 1967, Release is the oldest independent drugs charity in the world. The organisation was founded partly in response to the increasing persecution of British hippies during the 60s counterculture. Release was an organisation of the counterculture and as such, shared countercultural values such as the “abolition of censorship, sexual freedom, banning the nuclear bomb, and the legalisation of soft drugs”. As such, while Release’s initial aim was to represent the counterculture with regard to the emerging ‘drug problem’, the organisation would go on to act as the broader ‘welfare branch of the alternative society’. This meant, often by necessity and despite a lack of funds, covering the “whole spectrum of problems” encountered by the disaffected and alienated youths that formed the counterculture. These included “unwanted pregnancies, medical and psychiatric conditions, homelessness, difficulties with housing and other legal concerns”.

The immediate cause for the formation of Release was a highly sensationalised February 1967 drug bust which saw Keith Richards and Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones arrested at Redlands, Richards’ Tudor Manor House in Chichester. On the evening of the 27th June, countercultural youths, incensed by the of the bust and the tabloid’s wider role in waging war against the hippy movement, held demonstrations outside of the tabloid’s offices on Bouverie Street in London. It was here that Caroline and Rufus got chatting. Caroline’s anger towards the treatment of contemporary people who used drugs came from an experience in 1965 where she saw her 25-year-old Jamaican friend given two years in prison over the possession of a single joint of cannabis. Caroline saw this experience as “racism and prejudice against the working class”; together with Rufus, they saw the Redlands affair as symptomatic of the broader persecution of a group desperately in need of advocacy. The next evening, Rufus visited Caroline in her studio, which would lead to several meetings involving countercultural figureheads.

The result was Release, the world’s first 24-hour countercultural agency, providing legal support to young people arrested for drug offences. The organisation started in Caroline’s basement flat in Shepherds Bush, and would move to 50 Princedale Road, Holland Park, in 1968. Barry Miles, a writer, and countercultural figure best known for his role in the movement’s bookshop scene, describes Release’s early office:

“A blue-painted door led up two flights of stairs to the Release Office. The furniture was all second-hand: yellow oakwood desks and two ancient sit-up-and-beg typewriters, four chairs and a battered settee. Bright psychedelic posters decorated the walls.”

Release was more than a legal agency; it was a community space for the countercultural young. Lexicographer and historian Jonathan Green adds that Release had ‘socialising facilities, a room with no desks or typewriters, where people could just sit and have coffee and talk’. As a community space, Release would rapidly expand its operations to encompass “underage runaways, advice on abortion, homelessness and squatting”, widening services to encompass wider marginalised groups of British society.

Bustcards and celebrities

Release operated a legal support helpline which was manned 24 hours a day, with cases handled by six volunteer lawyers. At its inception, Release’s operating costs were roughly £100 a week, funded by donations from countercultural spaces such as the UFO and later Middle Earth nightclubs, as well as support from the countercultural elite. For example, 1970 saw Mick Jagger dedicate the world premiere of his crime drama film ‘Performance’ to Release.

Beyond the helpline, Release innovated methods to empower young people who were at risk of police intimidation. Release innovated the bust card, a small piece of card with a solicitor’s number on it as well as brief notes on what to do if arrested. In an age before mobile phones, Release’s bust cards acted as portable and practical tool for members of the counterculture. Indeed, the bust cards were the first items printed by Release and were designed by Caroline Coon herself. Not only do bust cards continue to be by direct action groups involved in civil disobedience campaigns, but their use in the sixties prefigured the rise of camera phone citizen journalism in the twenty-first century as a means of documenting police brutality.

 

One of the earliest iterations of Release’s bustcard, from 1967. Designed to help people know their rights on arrest.

 

Despite constant financial pressure, Release was incredibly effective in its early years. By 1969, Release had processed 2,000 cases in the previous 18 months. In Britain, 17% of first-time cannabis offenders were being sent to prison, while none of those assisted by Release received jail terms.

John Lennon was one of Release’s first clients. Here’s the original case-sheet for his and Yoko Ono’s cannabis and obstruction offence.

 

Reporting on drugs and who use them

Release’s commitment to defend the rights of people who use drugs has remained steadfast from the start. The 1969 publication The Release Report on Drug Offenders and the Law illustrates the agency’s commitment to this cause from inception, in ways that continue to be salient today. In the book, Caroline and Rufus attacked the recently-bolstered police stop and search powers, where young people were being “searched for no reason other than [being] perceived as being of a suspect generation”.

“The young drug user is and will continue to be an object of victimisation because, as a part of a minority group, [the drug user] is vulnerable in a society whose main concern is to use legal measures on a problem where medical and social solutions are likely to be more successful”, the report added.

Release’s response to the 1974 Windsor Free Festival exhibits the organisation’s principles in practice, this time in the defence of young festival goers. The festival was created by anarchist activist Ubi Dwyer and land rights activist Sid Rawle. It was situated on crown land near the Queen’s primary residence to mock the establishment both deliberately and symbolically. The festival ran annually between 1972 and 1974, the final incarnation of which was brutally and violently suppressed by police, leading to large public outcry.

Shortly after the final festival, Release published a report titled: ‘Truncheons in the Park – Malice or Incompetence? A Report on the police actions at the third annual Windsor free festival, 24th-29th August 1974’. It covered Release’s actions during the festival, as well as specifying 22 allegations against the police. “Release staff and volunteers were on the site through the festival. Release doctors and psychiatrists provided free professional medical assistance. Release-affiliated solicitors made special trips from London to advise people held in army barracks (when allowed) and to advise and represent those charged in Windsor Magistrates’ Court”.

Allegations included the use of “truncheons and sticks of wood by police officers against festival people without provocation”, “the kicking, hitting and beating of festival-goers without provocation”, and “the causing of injuries to individuals by running over them with police

vehicles”. In summary, Release concluded that “the hysterical and violent behaviour of certain junior officers was, in part, a direct result of the ‘anti festival’ attitude prevalent in the upper ranks of the force”.

Release’s appearance, advocacy and reporting at Windsor Free Festival is a testament to the organisation’s desire to proactively protect people who use drugs, but an understanding of the interlinked civil rights of other individuals, and the need to resist police repression. Recording and contesting police and other government actions has remained a central part of Release’s work for over 50 years, and the organisation is as active as ever in ensuring the rights of vulnerable groups in society are protected from punitive drug laws.

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