2nd July issue

Release’s 40th anniversary conference last week gave a fascinating – and deeply disturbing – look back to the beginning of the ‘war on drugs’.

The artist Caroline Coon told how she had set up and run Release with fellow art students, because she couldn’t believe the government’s ‘stop and search’ regime that suddenly pervaded sixties’ hippie culture – ordinary kids doing their thing, harming nobody else.

At the time she threw herself into the cause of bring cases to the authorities’ attention – cases like 19-year-old Barry, who ended up in Wormwood Scrubs for being at a party where a small amount of cannabis was found. She thought there must be some some mistake: that our government and justice system didn’t realise what was happening to ordinary young people. She thought that if Release shouted loud enough, the prohibition ‘drug law scandal’ would stop. Of course it didn’t.

Forty years on, Caroline Coon says she is ‘sorry that all of us who have campaigned to end prohibition have not yet succeeded’ – a sentiment that was backed by others who spoke out (and wrote out), then and now.

Has the climate changed at all? Or have we moved further into victimising those in society who can least handle it? John Furniss thinks so, as he question’s Ipswich’s strategy on sex workers (page 6). The pervasive influence of the media in influencing drug policy comes in for a battering in this article, as well as at the Release conference – even Sunday Times and Guardian journalist Simon Jenkins blamed politicians for ‘cowering behind the press’.

This week we’ve had a change of Prime Minister; will the new cabinet make a difference? Gordon Brown has promised ‘a radical review of the anti-drugs strategy’ that includes helping those with substance problems into treatment earlier. Whether this will be proactive as opposed to reactive remains to be seen.

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