NEWSMAKER: Wrong side of the law - Michael Linnell, Director of communications, Lifeline

ANNIE KELLY

When Michael Linnell answered a job ad 14 years ago calling for artistic talent and vision, he never expected to end up running one of the sector's most controversial drugs campaigns.

"When I joined Lifeline I had no idea where the job would take me,

says the charity's director of communications. "But I immediately saw an opportunity to crack the mould and change the way people were talking to drug takers, easily the most marginalized group in any society."

Although such a forthright attitude has helped Lifeline forge strong links with its target communities, it has also placed it on the wrong side of the law. The Greater Manchester Police has threatened to prosecute under section 9 of the Misuse of Drugs Act if it goes ahead with a campaign to provide sterile drug apparatus to homeless heroin users.

The campaign is part of Lifeline's wider drive to address the epidemic rise of diseases such as Hepatitis B among homeless heroin users in Manchester, and try to make the city a safer place. The charity intends to give out a box including drugs apparatus such as tourniquets, needles and citric acid along with a publication aimed at showing homeless heroin addicts how to inject safely. The box will be handed out to people who visit one of Lifeline's needle banks, which also provide on-site medical advice.

Linnell says that the new campaign reflects the charity's wider philosophy - tell the truth about drugs and the people who use them. "It's obvious that nobody knows how to stop people using drugs, and there is never going to be a situation where we live in a drug-free society,

he states. "From this standpoint we have to be realistic and accept that we have a responsibility to look out for those who are serious drug users. The problem is not going to go away and if organisations such as Lifeline don't take action, nobody will."

He is furious that the charity is facing prosecution under a law that is due to be amended next autumn anyway, and is already widely ignored by many authorities which allow charities to run needle exchanges and drugs programmes in centres across the UK.

"My view is that we have to negotiate with police, but ultimately we are going to go ahead and fight this case,

he says. "We are right, and the law that they are prosecuting us under is not only wrong, but everyone including the Government knows this."

Lifeline has courted controversy since the launch of its first publication in 1985. After initially making videos about HIV and heroin use for professional agencies, Linnell spearheaded the production of literature specifically aimed at drug users.

"All the stuff that was on the market at that time was basically useless.

It was written by middle-class professionals for a middle-class audience and had no relevance to any of the drug users that we were talking to,

he says. The first publication, Smack In The Eye, proved both hugely successful with drug users and controversial, attracting extensive media coverage and raising awareness of the charity. Linnell consequently went on to launch a range of publications aimed at different groups such as recreational drug users, and is currently working on a guide addressing issues around cannabis use for a younger audience.

"It's more than just providing information,

he explains. "You have to communicate successfully with people if you're going to gain their trust.

There's no point bombarding people with facts if they don't think you're on their side."

According to Linnell, the impending police action is the product of a misunderstanding of Lifeline's long-term objectives, triggered by reactionary pressure from "vigilante

anti-drug groups tapping into popular opinion of how drug users deserve to be treated. "When dealing with such a contentious issue there is bound to be a huge range of opinion,

he says. "Political influence comes as much from newspapers such as the Daily Mail and certain groups which fuel the popular perception that people who use drugs don't deserve help."

He believes it is vital that the sector continues to provide services for unpopular communities, and understands that cases such as this may dissuade other charities from attempting to launch similar campaigns.

"Unfortunately, the situation is that we are forced to step on the wrong side of the law to provide services that we consider absolutely vital,

he says. "The difference is that we're an independent department and we're able to voice these opinions without worrying that our public funding for the rest of the organisation will be stopped. This must be a big worry for other drug groups.

"However, unless the sector continues to fight for what it believes to be right, we may as well all ditch our charitable status and operate as statutory groups or commercial companies."

Although Linnell claims that sales of publications have rocketed since the charity attracted notoriety, Lifeline is in a delicate position. Some of its other operations are funded with public money and it runs some of its services through public contracts which could be jeopardised. "What really worries me is that other departments within the charity are starting to face attacks for the campaigns my department is running, and I'm concerned that this could have an impact on campaigns that we've won fair and square,

he says.

"But what can you do?

he says. "If we really believe that what we are doing is right, then how can we bow down to pressure and still command the respect of the people who so badly need our help?"

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