Marking fifty years on the frontlines of the war on drugs

In 1967, Mick Jagger had been arrested for possession of cannabis – an event that coincided with an increasingly hostile drug policy in the UK (and across the world). 

In response, Caroline Coon and Rufus Harris decided to challenge the establishment’s view on drugs by setting up Release, an agency that provides much needed legal advice and bail services to those caught in possession of drugs. 

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Fifty years on, Release’s work continues – and they’ve never been more needed. To mark the organisation’s half-centenary, Release is hosting the Museum of Drug Policy in London from the 3rd-5th November. With a mixture of live performances and art exhibits, The Museum of Drug Policy is a unique cultural hub that manages to convey many facets of the harmful ‘war on drugs’ and its impact on ordinary people around the world.

The Dangerous Drugs Act passed UK parliament in 1967 and with increased attention to punitive drug policy, Release became the first front-line organisation to challenge drug laws. Caroline and Rufus set up the agency in their basement to provide 24-hour free legal advice; a helpline that still exists today with Release offering free legal advice. It was also within the year of 1967 that a full page advertisement in the Times was taken out with a host of public figures, musicians, opinion formers, all signing to say that drug laws were “immoral in principle and unworkable in practice”. Coordinated by Steve Abrams, the open letter had prominent cultural figures of the time among the 64 signatories, including Brain Epstein and The Beatles.

It was only one year later in 1968 that Release gave evidence to the Wootton Advisory Committee on Drugs which would later go on to produce the Wootton Report, which concluded, "possession of a small amount of cannabis should not normally be regarded as a serious crime to be punished by imprisonment".

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Half a century later and Release’s work has not changed. They still provide unparalleled legal advice when it comes to drugs, but they have also conducted a number of successful public-facing campaigns, such as their awareness drive ‘Nice People Take Drugs’, a campaign designed to address the stigma around drug laws and how everyday people are involved in the issue.

One of the most important projects which Release works on is that of Y-Stop. It refers to ‘Stop and Search’ in the UK, and ‘Stop and Frisk’ in the US, which is well known for its divisive application. In their report, ‘The Numbers in Black And White: Ethnic Disparities In The Policing And Prosecution Of Drug Offences In England And Wales’, Release found that someone is stopped and searched for drugs every 58 seconds. Black people were shown to be 6.3 times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs than white people, despite black people using less drugs than white people. Across London black people are charged for possession of cannabis at five times the rate of white people. This level of disparity in policing causes dangerous divides within our communities.

Release has challenged the powers of Stop and Search since 1977 with the publication of a report which looked at the issue under the powers of the Misuse of Drugs Act. In recent times Stop and Search powers have been found to be very ineffective. For over half a million stop searches carried out for drugs in England and Wales every year, there’s only a seven per cent arrest rate. The societal harm associated with Stop and Search throughout the 1980s placed a strain on communities which ultimately led to significant unrest in Brixton and Toxeth.

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Over the decades Release have had some prominent supporters; in 1969 David Bowie performed a benefit concert to raise funds for the organisation, and Mick Jagger dedicated the world premiere of his film ‘Performance’ to the organisation and their work. A few years later, in 1973, Paul McCartney and Wings headlined a benefit concert in aid of Release.

Continuing to utilise the power of the arts as an effective outreach platform, it makes sense that Release would be excited to work in partnership with the Museum of Drug Policy to mark their 50th Anniversary. The special exhibition will be free to the public from 3rd  November in Tanner Street, London, for three days. The agenda is crammed with live performances, talks, and some of the most original and eye-grabbing pieces of art that convey the drug war’s true harm. First launched in New York in April 2016, the museum makes its first appearance in the UK to help commemorate Release’s big day.

Let’s join together in wishing a very happy 50th Birthday to Release with gratitude to their continued work.


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