Select Committee on Home Affairs Memoranda


Submitted by Release

  Release was established in 1967 to help those who had been arrested for alleged drug offences. Our 24-hour helpline was the worlds first ever national drugs helpline and the only service that combined the provision of both legal and welfare advice to drug users.

  Release's services today includes the provision of free and accessible legal advice on drug-related issues, specialist policy and practice advice on key issues, the provision of training, conferences and consultancy services to other professionals who work in the field and outreach work in clubs and festivals across the UK. Our commitment to the civil and human rights of our clients remains at the forefront of our work.


  Release has been documenting the impact of Britain's drug laws for over 34 years. Since 1967 we have assisted well over 100,000 callers to our helpline requiring advice, information and representation on their legal rights and the legal process. This experience has informed many of the publications we have produced illustrating the harms caused by our drug laws. This includes The Release Report on Drug Offenders and the Law1, The Truckers Bible2, Stop & Search3, Trouble with the Law4, The Release White Paper5, Drugs & the Law6 and Room for Drugs7.

  We have over the years borne witness to some of the worst excesses of the drug laws and law enforcement. This includes the 535 arrests at the 1985 Stonehenge Festival8, the imprisonment of two dedicated hostel workers for not doing enough to rid their homeless day centre of drug dealers, and the regular prosecution of patients with a range of conditions for using cannabis for relief. Above all it is the day-to-day contact with otherwise law abiding citizens who have been criminalised by a law that is desperately in need of reform on which we base this submission.


  To many people familiar with this issue it is obvious that neither the use nor the misuse of drugs should be dealt with by the police and the criminal justice process. This does not imply that drugs should not be controlled and properly regulated within the law, quite the contrary. We therefore propose the following key principles that should guide a new system consistent with our expectations of a modern civil society. These principles are:

    —  Human Rights

        The starting point should be the principle that in a modern democratic society citizens should have the right to take decisions over their own lives providing they do not harm others.9

    —  Protecting the vulnerable

        The above proposition must of course be tempered by the need to protect young and vulnerable members of society. Consequently there should be constraints on advertising, promotion, sale to young people etc.

    —  Licensing and control

        Effective regulation on the content, strength, labelling, quality and other features would need to be developed in the same way that presently applies for alcohol, tobacco, over the counter medicines and many other products.

    —  Living with risk

        It must also be acknowledged that whatever system of regulation exists there will always be some who will suffer to some degree. The realistic goal is to minimise risk and suffering. As is the case in other aspects of health promotion, this is best achieved through good information, education, treatment and other social responses that operate within the law as opposed to those that drive both the victim and the problem underground.


  As part of a step-by-step process of reform Release proposes that the UK Government initiate the following measures:


  Although the three UN drug control conventions allow for more flexibility and interpretation than is often appreciated, a review of these conventions is long overdue. We propose that the UK Government work with other governments and international bodies in reforming these conventions to permit new policy paradigms including legal supply already long overdue. Such a review should also acknowledge the problems experienced by producer countries, and develop genuine non-militaristic programmes of economic and social support with the involvement of the indigenous populations.


  We believe that the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act should be replaced with new legislation that more accurately reflects the principles set out above and the changing public mood towards a more informed and realistic regulatory system. Amongst the specific changes that we advocate are:


  The illegal status of cannabis is the single most unjust and inappropriate element of the current legislation. Its outlaw status has now criminalised some one million people since the enactment of the Misuse of Drugs Act and is simply not justified on the basis of any rationale analyses of its relative harm to individuals or society10. We propose:

    —  The use and cultivation of cannabis for personal use be no longer a criminal offence.

    —  That the appropriate measures be taken for cannabis to be regulated and controlled within an effective system of licensing and control. Any attempt to sanction the use of cannabis without providing a legal mode of supply would inevitably be a lucrative gift to organised crime.

    —  That the use, supply, cultivation and prescribing of cannabis for medicinal and therapeutic purposes be made lawful without delay.


  We are convinced from the testimonies of the thousands of heroin users and their families and friends that the present legal and professional restrictions on the prescribing of heroin is misguided and significantly contributes to increased drug-related crime. We therefore propose that new clinical guidelines and legal reforms are enacted to allow for heroin prescribing to be significantly extended and its impact monitored.

  We support innovative harm reduction initiatives such as the prescribing of heroin cigarettes as a way of weaning clients off intravenous opiate use as well as the development of safe "injecting rooms" to reduce risks to injecting drug users within a properly monitored and evaluated framework. Ongoing international research should also be used to inform the development of UK drugs policy.


  The present tough penalties on the use of ecstasy, LSD and cocaine are inappropriate and counter-productive and should be reduced. We also believe that the use of coca leaf should attract lesser penalties than cocaine and that preparations of peyote mushrooms growing wild in the UK should no longer be illegal. At present mushrooms can be legally collected and ingested in the wild but any attempt to dry them is illegal.


  The important implications of this section of the MDA, which have been compounded by proposed new legislative changes to it, is an issue in which we have gained considerable insight and expertise in recent years. With this in mind and in view of the wide-ranging concerns about this matter we have set out our position and proposals in some detail separately.


  The "social supply" of drugs ie the sharing of drugs between friends on a non-profit basis should be distinguished from supply for profit and not be subject to any sanctions over and above that which applies to possession.


  We believe that in the long term the use and supply of all drugs be controlled and regulated within the law, using different and appropriate supply models for different drugs. This is the only way to assure effective drugs education and harm minimisation across the board and also the only way to eliminate the involvement of criminal gangs and terrorist networks in the supply of drugs.

September 2001

REFERENCES1  1969. Sphere Books, Newgate Press London.

2  1974. A guide to international drug laws for travellers: Release.

3  1977. Stop & Search a report into Police Powers under the Misuse of Drugs Act. Release.

4  1979. Awarded the Cobden Trust annual award for civil rights work. Release.

5  1992. The Release White Paper on Reform of the Drug Laws. Release Publications Ltd.

6  1994. Release Publications Ltd.

7  1999. Release Publication Ltd.

8  Of which there was not a single conviction.

9  This is of course a paraphrase of the classic JS Mill quote from "On Liberty". It is also consistent with Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights(the right to liberty).

10  Drugs, dilemmas, choices and the law. Royal College of Psychiatrists and Royal College of Physicians 2000.

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Prepared 20 December 2001