Legendary 1960's charity Release is Britain's only specialist provider of legal advice to drug users. But can it survive in the age of spending cuts and "big society"?
Release, one of Britain's most iconic charities, associated indelibly with 1960's counter-culture and the hippy underground, and in its heyday dubbed "the welfare branch of the alternative society," faces financial crisis and may be forced to close its core services after Christmas.
The charity says it is the only specialist provider of legal services to drug users and their families in the UK. It offers advice and help on welfare, housing and debt problems, as well as issues relating to heroin use and drugs treatment.
Release was set up to advise young people on their legal rights in relation to drug laws by a group of artists, activists, radical lawyers and hippies who moved in London's alternative music scene the late sixties.
Its service - which expanded to include medical help and advice on homelessness and pregnancy to drug users - was used by young people who fell foul of police crackdowns on illegal drug use at the time, including Beatle George Harrison. The charity's work included sending teams of doctors and lawyers to staff "trip tents" at alternative rock festivals in which spaced-out youngsters would be offered treatment and support.
In many ways its origins were quintessentially big society: citizens identifying a social need unrecognised and unmet by the state, and providing the solution themselves. As the artist Caroline Coon, who helped found Release, recalled in the book The Unsung Sixties:
"We were the first youth organisation which was really an alternative social service run by young people for young people."
The charity, which has had share of rocky patches over the years (but has been stable in recent years, according to its chief executive Sebastian Saville) says that without a speedy cash injection, its legal advice helpline - the "cornerstone" of its work - will close early in the new year.
Release's financial predicament stems not directly as a result of public spending cuts but by a drop in donations. It has got by on luck - the odd generous bequest - and entreprenurial ingenuity in recent years without contracts or grants from Whitehall or local authorities. Interestingly, however, it sees its salvation - or at least the most practical and sustainable way to get itself on a stable financial footing and maintain its services - through state funding.
Saville believes state funding (Release got a Home Office grant in the Thatcher-era, but lost this funding under Labour) is not a cop out but would simply recognise the vital work Release effectively does on behalf of the state. He estimates that of the 500-800 calls the charity helpline receives every month, roughly a quarter are legally-related referrals from the government's own advice helpline, Frank.
State funding may well be unforthcoming in the era of cuts. So will big society come to the aid of Release? Saville notes that "at a time when everyone is talking about big society" his letter to prime minister David Cameron explaining Release's predicament "has not even had a reply."
The charity has photocopies of cheques for £5,000 signed by Harrison, and guitarist Eric Clapton, and presented to it in the 1960's. Saville is ever-optimistic that a generous donor is round the corner, but fears that despite Release's counter-cultural past, hefty donations may not come from today's rock stars, who, he says, tend to be more cautious about supporting radical causes than they were.
"Their reaction is often 'but what would Sony think?' Long hair does not a hippy make, and some of the straightest people around are our musicians".
Friday 10 December 2010 16.15 GMT
On the brink: Britain's 'alternative social service'