Save perhaps San Francisco or Amsterdam, London in the Swinging ’60s was inevitably the birthplace of the world’s first charity for drug users.
Launched in 1967 in response to the growing number of people arrested under the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1965, Release outlived the flower-power era and has been tackling the less psychedelic side of drug use ever since.
Head of legal services at the charity is Katy Swaine, who leads a legal team the remit of which has broadened to offering legal advice not only on drugs, but also on health, welfare and housing for drug users and those they live with.
Swaine explains that, as well as dealing with the drug problem itself, key to Release’s work is helping its clients to find sustainable finance and housing.
“From a drug treatment perspective, the rationale is that, until those problems are dealt with, people can’t concentrate on drug treatment,” she explains.
Legal adviser Niamh Eastwood, a non-practising barrister, and paralegal Ben Clark assist with this, aided by an average of six law students at a time providing research.
The charity advertises in London university law departments for volunteers and has been helped by a lot of students, particularly from BPP Law School.
“That’s a part of the job I really enjoy,” Swaine enthuses. “You learn a lot and it can be so useful.”
The lion’s share of advice is dispensed through Release’s 24-hour hotline – the organisation’s most high-profile offering.
The charity receives around a thousand calls a month, roughly a third of them from recreational drug users “who’ve been arrested for the first time and have no idea of what their rights are”.
Other callers include drug users seeking help to tackle their habit; parents concerned about their children using drugs; people who suspect their partners of drug usage; and a large number of cannabis users who are concerned about having been asked to undergo drugs tests at work.
Swaine says the hotline also receives calls concerning “various compounds with extremely long names from people trying to work out whether they’re legal or not”.
As well as the hotline, the team also helps staff five outreach programmes in the London area, two in Westminster, and one each in Haringey, Fulham and Hackney, which involves working closely with the boroughs’ social services.
“The client group can be challenging, such as people who are homeless and need housing advice. And there may well not be an easy answer, so maintaining a level of emotional detachment is important,” says Swaine.
Although social services are amenable, Swaine says each council team has its quirks and that it is important to avoid duplication or confusion when several professionals are working with the same client simultaneously.
The charity is also exploring a new project called ‘Open Doors’, aimed at sex workers in Hackney, which among other objectives aims to fill the “legal aid gap”, such as when a sex worker is arrested for loitering and soliciting and wants to plead not guilty.
In addition to advice given directly to clients via the helpline and outreach programmes, the team’s work also includes publishing pamphlets, such as ‘Sex Workers and the Law’ and the charity’s famous ‘Bust Card’, explaining one’s rights upon arrest, as well as information on a range of different drugs.
Last but not least, the charity is also involved in campaigning work on drugs issues, such as its action against the reclassification of cannabis from its class ‘C’ status back to class ‘B’.
“Our work’s very varied,” says Swaine. “The challenge is maintaining high standards across the board.”
Head of legal services
|Legal capability:||Two lawyers, one paralegal|
|External legal spend:||None|
|Head of legal services:||Katy Swaine|
|Reporting to:||Executive director Sebastian Saville|
|Katie Swaine’s CV:||
Education: 1992-96 – joint-honours French and Italian, Cambridge University; 1996-98, Nottingham Law School
Work history: 1998 – joined Mishcon De Reya, commercial litigation and employment law; 2003 – joined Release