Russell Newcombe

We were hugely saddened to hear that Russell Newcombe had died earlier this month, at the age of 66, after a battle with lung cancer.

Russell was a singular figure in the UK drug policy field. A brilliant mind, and a courageous compassionate spirit, Russell dedicated his life and career to the health, wellbeing and rights of people who used drugs - a community of which he was an unashamed and vocal member.

His career as drug researcher and activist spanned over five decades. After securing his doctorate from Sussex University he moved to Liverpool in the early 80s. His pioneering research on responses to the new and intersecting crises of injecting drugs use and HIV would go on to become foundational to the harm reduction paradigm that now shapes much of UK and global drug policy. It included monitoring the, now famous, experiment with heroin prescribing pioneered by the psychiatrist John Marks - which remains of profound relevance to policy debates more than 40 years later.

He published the first paper to ever use the term ‘harm reduction’ in Druglink in 1987. Last month the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, after years of push back from prohibitionist leaning member states, finally included harm reduction language in a formal resolution (on overdose prevention). Author Mike Jay rightly describes the moment as ‘a fitting tribute to Russell’s journey from the margins of drug policy to mainstream recognition’ and one, we were happy to learn, he was well enough to have enjoyed.

Another part of his remarkable legacy are a series of groundbreaking harm reduction publications for different groups of people who use drugs - including the ‘ology’ series, (illustrated by Mike Linell) for Lifeline, under his nom de plume of Dr Nuke (which lived on in his Twitter profile).

Alongside his work through the years, as a Home Office researcher, lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, and research and training consultant with his own agency, Russell was always a harm reduction activist and advocate for more just and effective drug policy and law. He was a loyal cheerleader for Transform from its founding by Danny Kushlick in the late 90s, and throughout the years, supporting the organisation and the reform cause on its own journey from the margins to the mainstream.

From his research, and as a user of legal and illegal drugs who had experienced many brushes with the law, Russell understood as well as anyone the role of punitive prohibitions as a key structural driver of drug related harms. He made his incredible knowledge of drugs and drug policy available to Transform to support our work over the years - for which we will always be grateful. Few of Transform’s publications did not benefit from his invaluable insights and encyclopaedic knowledge - right up to our 50 Years of the Misuse of Drugs Act campaign initiative, for which he was able to supply historic UK drug policy data from his archives, long since unavailable from any online or official sources.

Educator, campaigner, harm reduction trailblazer, psychonaut, and an endlessly fascinating, generous and lovely human - he will be terribly missed. RIP

Photo credit: Nigel Brunsdon

A crowdfunder has been set up to support Russell’s Wife Cheryl.