The recent history of club drugs in the UK – their introduction and attempts to reduce their harm – illustrates how attitudes have changed both for better and for worse over a relatively short time period. In particular, it highlights a time when not only was reducing the harm from club drugs a greater priority for all stakeholders than it is now, but a time when the UK was pioneering good practice in night life policy. The question then is: why is it so often overlooked currently, when now, more than ever, new initiatives are needed to tackle these harms?
The emergence of club culture
A cultural earthquake happened in the UK in the late 1980s. House music, imported from the gay and black clubbing scenes of US cities like Chicago and Detroit, combined with the Balearic beats of Ibiza to reshape and revitalise UK nightlife, resulting in the emergence of the acid house and rave scene, fuelled by ecstasy and other stimulant drugs. Ravers returning from Ibiza brought with them the concept of dance clubs and sought to recreate their experiences in the UK in clubs like Shoom and the Haçienda. Gradually raves moved from illegal parties in fields and warehouses to events held by promoters in indoor licensed nightclub venues, a development accelerated by police pressure, a number of existing laws, and also Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which specifically criminalised outdoor parties of over 100 people, along with criminalising rave music itself with subsection (1) (b), which notoriously forbade ‘sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats’.12
The founding of iconic ‘superclubs’ across the 1990s such as the Ministry of Sound, Cream, Gatecrasher and at the end of the ‘decade of dance’ Fabric, broadened the appeal of clubbing, established electronic dance music as a multimillion pound business within the UK NTE, and differentiated clubbing culture from other music and night life entertainment.3 Venues often found themselves unfamiliar with the health and safety needs of this new audience, unprepared to deal with the harms associated with club drug use, and unaware of the role simple practices such as providing free tap water and reducing ambient temperatures could play in reducing club drug-related harm.4 While peer-led education and information on reducing club drug-related harm spread amongst the clubbing community, venues were in desperate need of practical advice, with the threat of closure hanging over many, and the fear of on-site deaths looming large.
Club Drug Research Pioneers
The first research on UK raves, dance clubs and club drug use was conducted by the Rave Research Bureau, led by Russell Newcombe and staffed by Fiona Measham and others. The research, consisting predominantly of covert observation at early 1990s raves, assisted some of the earliest dance clubs within licensed premises to keep their licences when threatened with closure due to illegal drug use on their premises, an issue not faced by earlier outdoor and unlicensed raves. The ad hoc research team spent their weekends monitoring drug use, drug dealing, violence and disorder at raves, identifying environmental risk factors and writing reports outlining recommendations to improve safety and reduce harm at venues, transferring the principles of harm reduction from the 1980s Merseyside heroin scene to the context of club drug use.5 Drawing on this research, Newcombe devised his Safer Dancing recommendations,6 which established many of the standard practices that are now seen as basic requirements for licensed venues around the world: chill-out areas, free water, sufficient ventilation, functioning fire exits, and trained and competent security and bar staff.7
Alongside the Rave Research Bureau, a Manchester-based drug treatment service, Lifeline Project, began developing literature directed aimed at the club drug-using population. Working closely with Newcombe, Mike Linnell, Lifeline’s artist in residence, developed Peanut Pete, a series of cartoons communicating drug-related harm and how to reduce it, designed with a humorous, irreverent and engaging style.8 The cartoons proved popular with clubbers, other drug using groups, and with wider public health and drug services, playing a significant role in communicating basic harm reduction practices to a wider clubbing audience.9
Following the death of 16-year-old Claire Leighton in the Haçienda in 1989,10 the UK’s first reported ecstasy-related death, and subsequent concerns over overheating, dehydration and rave-related deaths,11 Manchester Council and key councillors such as Pat Karney increasingly acknowledged both the economic contribution of dance clubs to the city and the need to protect young people attending them. Drawing on Newcombe’s Safer Dancing recommendations, Manchester City Council, Lifeline Project and Newcombe developed the world’s first local authority policy on harm reduction within dance clubs. The significance was not just that the recommendations stood the test of time and remain at the core of nightclub good practice more than 25 years later, but that they were mandatory conditions, not guidelines, that utilised licensing legislation for harm reduction in relation to illegal club drug use in dance club settings.12
Local Progress and National Resistance
Despite progress in Manchester and in pockets elsewhere, the years between 1994 and 1996 marked a low point in the relationship between the night life industry and central government. Michael Howard, then Home Secretary, proclaimed during his speech at the 1996 Conservative Party Conference that nightclubs were havens for drug use, and drug-specific measures were needed to expedite the removal of licences from venues deemed problematic – an approach that could not have been further from the partnership-led initiatives achieving success in Manchester. This resulted in a number of legislative changes, including provision to make licence holders legally responsible for on-site dealing and drug deaths, resulting in a number of high profile convictions. Another legislative change, the Public Entertainments Licences (Drug Misuse) Act 1997, gave police and licensing authorities the power to revoke the licence of any venue where drug use was deemed a ‘serious problem’. However, as this phrase was never clearly defined, the new Act was operationally problematic, leaving it to individual police forces to determine what constituted a ‘serious problem’, and subsequently was contested by defence lawyers at licence reviews. One of the notable club closures at this time was the iconic original Manchester rave club, the Haçienda, which lost its licence in 1997 due to drug and gang-related problems.13
The Act was soon repealed by the New Labour government, following a recommendation from the Bar Entertainment and Dance Association (BEDA), and marking the beginning of a brief and partial rehabilitation process between government and the night life industry, particularly in relation to drugs. Besides Lifeline in Manchester, a number of organisations began delivering outreach support to club drug using communities during the 1990s, most notably HIT in Liverpool, Release in London, which had historically delivered both welfare and drug-related advice at free parties and festivals alongside its legal work, and Crew2000 in Scotland. By the time club harm reduction was introduced in London, support from Manchester City Council and elsewhere had legitimised the practice.
In 1996, the London Drug Policy Forum (LDPF) published Dance Till Dawn Safely,14 a guide that echoed Manchester’s Safer Dancing Guidelines, and led to the formation of partnership with Release to create the Safer Clubbing campaign, which included a poster campaign and distribution of literature on reducing drug-related harm across London. A newly engaged Home Office, with Bob Ainsworth MP as the minister responsible for drugs, worked with Release and the LDPF to jointly produce the Safer Clubbing Guide in 2002.15
This Home Office-endorsed report set a new peak in the understanding of club drug-related harm between government and the night life industry, represented a recognition at national level of the findings and recommendations of Newcombe’s original research, and created the benchmark for future guidance on reducing drug-related harm in the NTE. By this point, however, club drug use practices were beginning to change, with dancing and ecstasy giving way to cocaine and alcohol-fuelled café bar culture.16 Many venues had adopted the policies advocated in Safer Clubbing years earlier, and as they were only guidelines with no legislative enforcement behind them, venues that did not follow them felt no legal compulsion to change their ways. So, while the symbolic significance of Safer Clubbing was substantial, in practical terms the guide was largely obsolete.
As the 2000s progressed, attention shifted firmly onto alcohol, as binge drinking rose in prominence. In response, the Licensing Act 2003 was implemented in 2005 and schemes such as Best Bar None, first piloted in Manchester in 2003, were established to address concerns caused by alcohol use. An update of the Safer Clubbing guidelines was released in 2008 as Safer Nightlife, with an additional focus on alcohol harms and sexual health, as well as updates reflecting changing trends in drug consumption.17 However, it was not until 2010 when mandatory conditions including responsible alcohol promotions and free tap water at licensed premises were enacted that the most irresponsible alcohol retail practices that had fuelled the binge drinking epidemic of the early 2000s were curtailed. This was in response to a 2008 review published by the Home Office and KPMG, based on covert observations in over 600 licensed premises. Thus, ironically, it was concerns over binge drinking rather than rising club drug deaths that resulted in the requirement to provide free tap water at licensed premises in the UK.18
“Consideration should be given to developing a national scheme for the purpose of testing MDMA with a view to providing harm reduction advice and developing monitoring data.”
– Recommendation from the ACMD, 200919
The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) published its review of the harms and classification of ecstasy in 2009.20 Among the recommendations was the acknowledgement that a harm minimisation approach to addressing non-problematic ecstasy use should be recommended, citing the Safer Nightlife guidelines as an example of best practice that should be encouraged, and providing harm reduction advice for people who use MDMA. Additionally, the ACMD recommended: “Consideration should be given to developing a national scheme for the purpose of testing MDMA with a view to providing harm reduction advice and developing monitoring data.” This recommendation, along with the recommendation on declassifying MDMA from Class A to Class B, was rejected by the government.
Policy Change and Stagnation
The focus of the UK’s drug policy changed in 2010. Harm reduction, which had, alongside prevention, remained one of the main guiding principles of UK drug policy since the mid 1980s and the HIV/AIDS pandemic, was deprioritised in favour of abstinence-based recovery.21 This change reflected a concern from the new Coalition Government that more effort should be made to help people with problem drug use to create change in their lives. However, one unintended outcome of this new policy was a decreased focus on harm reduction in the context of non-problematic use, which constitutes the majority of drug use, undermining the ACMD’s recommendations in its 2009 ecstasy review. Subsequent cuts to public health and drug treatment budgets, along with the decision by Government in 2012 to move the responsibility of drugs services to local authorities, have all further decreased publicly funded harm reduction services, almost to the point of elimination. Harm reduction pioneers have also been casualty to these cuts, with Lifeline closing in 2017.
In the ten years since the release of Safer Nightlife, and 25 years since the original Safer Dancing Manchester council policy, the only addition to the guidelines on countering drug-related harm in the NTE has been a 2011 release, Drugs at the Door, advising the adoption of amnesty boxes.22 The policy focus has shifted towards a greater emphasis on preventing drugs entering venues, with increased use of drug detection dogs, increasingly robust searches of customers upon entry, staff training and staff vigilance. A recent briefing by the Beer and Pub Association, in partnership with National Pubwatch does not feature any guidance on reducing drug-related harm.23 Meanwhile, security in the NTE has refocussed on counterterrorism policy, in light of licensed venues and events increasingly being seen as a priority target for terrorism.
Reducing Drug-Related Harm Today
Many festivals have maintained a strong focus on reducing drug-related harm, and it is these leisure events that have continued to drive innovation, including introduction of specialist medical, welfare and psychedelic support services, and replacement of ‘zero tolerance’ with the ‘3Ps: Prevent, Pursue, Protect’ drug policy. Most notably, since 2016, a number of festivals have introduced Multi Agency Safety Testing, provided by the non-profit NGO The Loop.24 Despite attempts to introduce drug safety testing to the general public in various city centre locations, these various festival initiatives have yet to be implemented in night life environments.25
A number of high quality sources of information now exist for people who use club drugs.26 The Global Drug Survey monitors drug use practices and provides information and web tools reducing drug-related harm,27 while the Government’s own source of drug advice, Talk to Frank, previously criticised for bias and lacking credibility, now provides more balanced information, including some basic advice on reducing drug-related harm. However, while this information exists in the public domain, reduction in funding and support for effective outreach and communication campaigns means that those who would most benefit from advice and information are often not engaged. In the absence of highly visible public information, peer-led harm reduction initiatives on social media, such as Facebook groups and YouTube channels have risen in prominence as sources of information on reducing drug-related harm,28 a repetition of the early years of club drug use, when harm reduction information was primarily shared by peer-run websites.29
Significant public desire for information on reducing drug-related harm exists, yet insufficient information is being provided in one of the settings where recreational drug use is most prevalent: the NTE.
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