Illegal drugs help fuel the nighttime economy.
You won’t hear that at an industry conference, but let’s be real – they have been a major factor in defining dancefloors and, by definition, our after-dark fun, since the 1970s. Any venue or promoter who says otherwise is just, not unreasonably, regurgitating a party line to protect their licence. Apart from the occasional (but increasing in number) sober raves out there, there’s likely never been a nightclub totally devoid of drugs, whether that’s ping of MDMA, line of coke, tab of acid, puff of spliff or, yes, booze.
And that’s fine, because the reality is that the majority of people in your average club are being responsible and moderate with their drugs.
Look at this way: of the approximately three million adults who took drugs between June 2021 and June 2022, there were 4,859 drug-related deaths, of which almost half were opiate-related. On the whole, clubbers might pop half a pill, rack up 30,000 steps on their iPhone pedometer, gyrate around a dancefloor like a fairground carousel, then comedown, grab their coat at 6am, say “thanks” to the security on the way out, and go about their life. Where’s their article in the Daily Mail with the headline “Man Who Took Moderate Amount of MDMA Says He Caught Up With Some Friends and Had a Lovely Night”? Doesn’t carry the same weight as its usual scare-mongering by-lines, does it?
But how can nightclubs help the minority of people who are struggling with their drug use? I say by not having to crack down on the people who are not struggling with their drugs. Professor Adam Winstock – addiction specialist and founder of the Global Drug Survey – thinks that when it comes to drugs, clubs should move from “zero tolerance” to “zero harm”.
“In the context of zero tolerance, there’s zero possibility of having open communication about the risks [of drugs],” he tells THE FACE. “It just shuts down the possibility of having any honest conversation with punters about how to reduce the risk. That’s why we need to move away from it.”
Winstock’s right. Last year a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute suggested that just three in 10 university students in the UK would be confident disclosing information “regarding their drug use, or abuse, to their institution without fear of punishment”. On top of that, 16 per cent of students surveyed who use illegal drugs and reported having a worrying experience did not go to hospital or seek help, for the same reason.
When it comes to drugs, licensing conditions in the UK don’t make clubs safer. Nearly all the focus is on intimidating clubbers into handing over their drugs, rather than harm reduction through education. The scare tactics of security, bouncers and, sometimes, club staff, could mean that – like the uni students surveyed – those having a dodgy time on drugs are less likely to seek help inside a club, before it could potentially lead to fatalities. “I don’t think licencing should be about drugs at all,” Professor Winstock says. “It should be about the safety of the patrons.”
So, what would that look like?
“If you’ve got chaotic, dangerous drug use going on in your club, you’re going to have ambulances, police called out and neighbours complaining,” he says. “If, actually, you’ve got people who are drinking and maybe using drugs moderately, leaving the premises not completely off-their-face, you’re not going to be having those problems. I think licensing shouldn’t necessarily be focused on the activities, but [rather] the consequences.
“[For example]: ‘If we don’t have to come, if we don’t have to get ambulances called out, if we’re not getting complaints, if your place isn’t a place where we’re getting reports of sexual assault because you’re looking out for people and you’re educating them, then we’re happy.’ That’s ultimately what all of these laws should really be about.”
In Ireland, nightclub licensing reforms were announced last year. As well as allowing clubs to open until 6am for the first time, venues will be expected to show zero tolerance in tackling domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. If they don’t comply, they risk losing their licence. In the UK, it seems to be rare for a licence to be revoked over sexual harassment. That said: sexual assaults are more likely to have licensing implications – a bar in Soho lost its alcohol licence last year after a sexual assault in the toilets, a bar in Stevenage lost their licence after an alleged rape earlier this year and a club in Somerset could be losing their licence after an alleged sexual assault also earlier this year.
To my knowledge, no club or bar has ever lost its licence because their customers or staff were sexually harassed. It’s fairly common for them to lose their licence over drugs, though – a bar in Yorkshire lost its licence last month due to crime relating to Class A drugs, while a club in Birmingham lost their licence this year with the police citing “drugs misuse as well as security concerns” as the reason. And who could forget Fabric nearly losing their licence in 2016 over drugs? The disparity between enforcing drugs and harassment means that there’s a lot of incentive for clubs to crack down on drugs, but none for them to stop people getting harassed.
Professor Winstock knows what he’s talking about when it comes to club drugs. After running the first survey on the topic in Mixmag in 1999, he founded the Global Drugs Survey, now an independent research company which has been collecting data and providing insights ever since. “A few years ago, we asked about 40,000 clubbers, ‘What’s important to you on a night out in a venue?’,” he explains. “Top of the list was free water. The two other most important things were having staff who were trained in recognising and responding to risk and having a campaign for safety, like [the] Ask for Angela [campaign].”
Part of aspiring to create safer clubs, according to Professor Winstock, is serving alcohol appropriately. “There is the Licensing Act 2003,” he says. “It’s against the law to serve someone who is obviously intoxicated. In the UK, if you’re pissed, you’ll get served probably 70 or 80% of the time.” In my opinion, it’s probably like 99% of the time if you’re intoxicated but pleasant and not drawing any attention to yourself. “Of course, serving alcohol to people who are already drunk or high increases risks of them running into problems or being vulnerable. If you’re not serving people who are completely off their face on ket, coke and pills, people are more likely to be getting home safely.”
If nightclub licencing moved its focus away from enforcing drugs towards reducing harms, clubs could reallocate security efforts and resources away from cracking down on the people who aren’t causing any harm to themselves or others. It could instead focus more on the small minority of people who do need help. That would be moving from a “zero tolerance” approach to “zero harm” approach – with education reigning supreme.
Of course, you could never eliminate potential harms completely – all drugs come with risk. But you could actively set out to reduce them, continuously striving to make the club safer. Licence-holders simply need the licensing to change to give them the framework to put it into action.