“The police… are absolutely geared up now to implement fines of £10,000 for those individuals that are facilitating these illegal parties and raves.”

So announced Home Secretary, Priti Patel, in the midst of the first COVID-19 lockdown. Clearly rave culture hasn’t ceased to exist in the new world in which we find ourselves. Instead, it appears, like many youth cultures, to have shifted with the times.

Therefore, the pandemic has created new opportunities for rave culture to remerge and adapt. So, how has COVID impacted rave culture?

A surprising development is the popularity of legal online raves. These allow the public to enjoy the festivities of in-person events, without face-to-face interaction. Researchers Palamar and Acosta found that during lockdown 55.5% of their participants enjoyed raves in the virtual world. This clearly cemented virtual raves as a new avenue for rave culture to adopt and explore. 

Substance use in online raves is lower than in-person events. However, you can’t entirely teach an old dog new tricks when it comes to rave culture. The study also found that 40.9% of its participants consumed drugs while participating in an online rave, with 18.3% consuming ‘party drugs’ such as cocaine, MDMA or ketamine. 

While lockdown has changed the context of raves, its associated past times are a harder habit to kick.

On the surface, this shift to rave culture in a home environment offers a safe place for ravers to take drugs. Immediate peer pressure is removed, and the threat of COVID-19 neutralised. Smiles all around. However, a deeper dive uncovers several harms produced by this new context. 

Firstly, there is safety in numbers. In-person raves allow friend groups to react immediately in the case of an overdose. Consuming drugs alone and away from friends removes the peer-group environment, and the opportunity for immediate help to those in medically dangerous situations. 

As well as this, the signs of overdose or reaction may be more difficult to identify if someone is alone, especially if it is their first time using a specific substance.

Therefore, the online environment actually presents a number of challenges in terms of harm reduction. Being that we now find ourselves in a world dominated by the online space, public health and policy officials need to tune themselves into the new reality of party drug consumption if we are to stand a chance at minimising harms. 

The pandemic also saw a rise in illegal in-person raves, so much so that rave culture has been described as making a “resurgence”. The first lockdown saw several high-profile events, including a rave of 4,000 people in a country park in Manchester, and another free party of 3,000 people in the Welsh village of Banwen. 

The political backdrop to these events is eerily similar to that of the original 1990s rave culture.

Over the course of the pandemic, youth unemployment rose to 14.8%, its highest level since July 2015.Although this figure has seen some improvement, young people returning to work appear to have entered unstable, zero-hour contracts in the gig economy, rather than secure permanent employment. This echoes the nature of the 1990s rave scene, which saw historically high levels of youth unemployment. 

Political and economic changes during this time also mirror the 1990s rave culture. Thatcher’s infamous legacy lingered, and the birth of ‘New Labour’ and the ‘New Right’ brought even harsher crime policy. The public were practically encouraged to recklessly spend every penny they had. However, (to no surprise) youth and the working class were denied the ability to do so through low pay and skyrocketing unemployment. 

Unsurprisingly, these issues have once more reared their ugly head with the introduction of the pandemic and numerous lockdowns. Young people are denied spaces to escape from the depressing reality in which they live, where unemployment is high and help from the government is scarce. 

As if this wasn’t enough, young people are increasingly criminalised, branded as “covidiots” by the mass media, despite the farcical behaviour of the political elite. 

The news media have also been complicit in creating overdramatic and insensitive stories relating to rave culture. Historically, they have been criticised for their use of ecstasy deaths, such as Leah Betts, to demonise young people and forward dangerous messages surrounding ecstasy and raving. 

The media continue to deploy the same tactics today, with MDMA branded as easier to obtain than alcohol and ecstasy deaths reappearing in the news media. Clearly, they have not learned their lesson. Like the move to virtual online raves, the supply of party drugs has also shifted. From the surface, drug consumption during the pandemic appears to have decreased.

A special edition from the Global Drug Survey reported that during the first lockdown, usage of cocaine and ecstasy appeared to have decreased by 39% and 42% respectively. Much of this reduction has been put down to lockdown restrictions, with the closure of nightclubs, and the limits placed on in-person contact making it difficult to meet dealers.

However, a deeper dive shows the opposite to be true.

Research by Sixgill reports that darknet listings for popular club drugs rose sharply during the pandemic, with postings for ecstasy rising by 224% and cocaine by 1000%. This paints an incredibly different picture than previously thought. Considering this, it appears that the routes of party drug supply have adapted from the street to the online space, conveniently solving the issue of in-person contact presented by the pandemic. 

This shift in drug supply poses new opportunities for rave culture and harm reduction. 

A report from Release suggests that the pandemic and changes in the way drugs are acquired caused an increase in reports of overdose, withdrawal and the sharing of paraphernalia. Therefore, there is seriously more to be done to make harm reduction services visible to those who may have reduced contact due to the pandemic. 

It is clear that the pandemic has helped to revive a rave culture of the kind last seen in the 1990s. However, whilst time has moved on, the mass media and government reactions to young people and party drugs have not. Harm reduction initiatives must keep their eyes on the ball if they are to adequately respond to the opportunities presented by the new rave culture. 

While the media and government are still intent on criminalising young people, it is unlikely that rave culture and its associated behaviours will go anywhere anytime soon.

Megan Townsend is a current MA Criminology student at Birmingham City University. This piece stems from her undergraduate dissertation on rave culture over the past 30 years. Tweets @megant2799.

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