Release campaigns around a variety of issues. The fundamental principle of this stream of work is to challenge policies that impact negatively on people who use drugs and their families.
Core to this work is our campaign ‘Drugs – It’s Time for Better Laws’, which calls for a review of UK drug policy. Release advocates for an evidenced based approach to drug policy and it is our view that the use of criminal sanctions for drug possession offences creates more harm for individuals, their families and society. The evidence from other countries shows that decriminalisation of drug possession offences does not lead to increased levels of drug consumption and can actually create more positive outcomes as people are no longer caught up in the criminal justice system.
Additionally, Release also responds to proposed policies and legislation that impact on those people we represent. This can result in us working on a wide range of issues including (but not limited to): welfare reform; legal aid; housing issues; anti-social behaviour legislation; reform to treatment provisions and sentencing procedures.
In the last 2 years Release has provided detailed responses to: the Government’s Drug Strategy Consultation; the Legal Aid consultation paper; the Sentencing Council’s consultation on Sentencing for Drug Offences; the Home Office consultation on Anti-Social Behaviour laws; the Welfare Reform consultation and the Home Affairs Select Committee Enquiry into Drugs. Release will continue to respond to proposed changes in policies that impact on our clients.
Has Release been successful in its campaigning and advocacy work?
Yes, the organisation has had an impact on a number of important policy areas.
Sentencing Guidelines for Drugs Offences: An example of the effective impact of Release’s reactive lobbying can be seen in the process that was undertaken by the Sentencing Council in relation to the proposed guidelines for drug offences. The initial consultation document, published in summer 2011, contained a number of worrying concepts including the notion that the quantity of a drug possessed by an individual should be used as a determinant for sentencing in possession offences. The draft consultation also proposed that ‘street dealers’ be considered as being in a leading role for the purpose of determining the culpability of the offender. In Release’s detailed response to the Sentencing Council’s draft consultation, the organisation highlighted the problems that existed within the proposals explaining why in practice some of what had been put forward was unworkable or unrepresentative of the nature of the illegal drugs market. The Sentencing Council’s Definitive Guideline for Drug Offences was published in January 2012 and many of our concerns were addressed positively. The impact of Release’s response was evident in the Sentencing Council’s document ‘Drug Offences: Response to Consultation’ where the organisation’s concerns were highlighted on a number of occasions. In some cases our arguments were even used as the reasoning to depart from some of the initial proposals, including the decision to drop threshold amounts for possession offences and identifying a street dealer as someone in a lesser/intermediate role.
The Work Capability Assessment: Similarly, in 2012 the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) issued a call for evidence as part of a review of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) which determines a benefit claimant’s ability to work or otherwise. Release worked with a group of other organisations, including the UK Drug Policy Commission and DrugScope, to submit evidence on how our client group are particularly affected by the WCA. Appeals of decisions that clients are capable of work forms a large proportion of our legal surgery caseload so we were well placed to comment and provide statistics for the review. In particular we identified that our 95 % success rate at Social Security Tribunals was indicative of how poorly the system of deciding who is capable of work or not is functioning. Additionally, we expressed concerns that the assessment was very focussed on physical conditions, which impacted negatively on people who use drugs problematically because many have mental health conditions as well as their drug dependency. The review is a yearly process and Release will be submitting further evidence in 2013 highlighting that there has been little improvement since the last consultation and report.
Many of our policy responses can be accessed here.
What other campaigns do Release run?
Release launched its’ current campaign ‘Drugs – It’s Time for Better Laws’ in June 2011 with an open letter to the Prime Minister calling for a review of the UK’s drug policy with proper consideration being given to decriminalisation as a policy option. The letter was signed by a number of high profile individuals and received significant media attention. The press coverage included reports in over 300 newspapers (national and local) and over 50 TV and radio interviews. Whilst Release organised the media logistics we recognised the value of ensuring that the signatories to the letter undertake all press interviews.
The ‘Nice People Take Drugs’ campaign which launched in 2009 challenged the stigma faced by those who use drugs. The campaign received global recognition with grass roots organisations organising events in the UK, Australia, Canada, the USA and Germany. The campaign received widespread media attention and continued to gather momentum throughout 2009 and 2010. The campaign was supported with a number of materials including: campaign cards; wrist bands; badges; playing cards depicting politicians who have admitted to their drug use and slogan t-shirts. The organisation was asked to present the campaign at conferences around the world including the Drug Policy Alliance conference in Albuquerque, the International Aids Conference in Vienna, the Harm Reduction Coalition Conference in Texas and the International Harm Reduction Conference in Beirut.
Release also runs TalkingDrugs, an online space which reflects the global challenge posed by illicit drugs. The website is in 28 languages and is accessed in nearly every country in the world. The website reports on developments in drug policy and provides an opportunity for people to share their stories or views. TalkingDrugs also links to partner Non-Governmental Organisations around the globe who are working in harm reduction and drug policy, giving an opportunity for people to get involved in these issues in their own countries. The project is supported by volunteers who are based both in the UK and further afield. TalkingDrugs is run by Release’s Head of Communications, Rupert George.
Finally, Release has launched a new stop and search programme in April 2013. This is as a result of our research into the ethnic disparities that exist in relation to the policing and prosecution of drug offences in England and Wales. This research demonstrated that the police use of stop and search powers for drugs is driving racial disproportionately in the criminal justice system. This programme is led by our Stop and Search Coordinator, Natasha Dhumma, and the aim is to develop a training programme which will help young people deal more effectively with police stop and search. The idea is to provide them with training around their rights and how they can implement those rights to reduce the risk of being searched or being arrested. As part of this programme we are consulting with young people across London to see what they want, what they think will work and how they would like it delivered. It is these young people who will be helping us to design the project.