A version of this post was published in The Guardian
It seems the London club Fabric has had its licence revoked on the grounds that its management is inadequately controlling drug use in the venue. The immediate incidents that led to this decision were the tragic deaths this year of two young men at the club.
Though it will be months before the coroner’s court tells us the causes of these deaths, it is widely anticipated that drugs will be implicated. And, if so, these are likely to be ecstasy-type stimulants.
The decision to close Fabric has been challenged by Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, as a blow to the city’s vital nighttime economy, which has lost a lot of venues in recent years. While the death of any young person is a cause of great sadness, I question whether the council and the Metropolitan police’s response is fair and proportionate.
This raises three important questions: did it deserve to be closed; will the closure make young people less likely to come to harm; and how can we minimise future deaths and yet encourage the nighttime clubbing economy?
The first question is one of proportionality. Young people do risky things that often result in harm to themselves and sometimes others, but this doesn’t usually result in the closing of the sites of these accidents. Five young men drowned in the sea at Camber Sands last month but there haven’t been calls to ban swimming at British beaches.
As I detailed several years ago, horse riding (particularly eventing) is statistically riskier than taking ecstasy, but stables are still open, even though one of the UK’s leading eventers, William Fox-Pitt, suffered a significant head injury and was in a coma for two weeks from a fall last year.
The lack of proportionality in the debate appears to be based on the stereotyping of clubbers by the police and public as being too young to make sensible decisions about risks to their health. There is also the added prejudice that the ambience of the clubs they frequent is far too different from that of Badminton or Burghley to be an acceptable source of pleasure.
Will the closure reduce risks? This seems unlikely as it will encourage more “illegal” raves, where security and drug monitoring will be much reduced. Indeed, some such events could even be in part funded by drug suppliers, so the possibility of harm may rise. Evidence for many drugs, such as alcohol, heroin and cannabis, reveals their use in underground markets is much more harmful than when use is properly regulated.
Young people die frequently from acute alcohol poisoning. We don’t stop supermarkets selling alcohol but we do try to reduce harm by checking they are over 18 when they purchase it. Can we apply similar harm-reduction principles to dance venues?
In fact, we already do. Regulations require clubs to have chill-out areas and free water, rules that were brought in to minimise ecstasy–related hyperthermia deaths in the 1980s, and have proved very successful.
In contrast, supply-side attempts to stop ecstasy production, for example through seizures, have increased harm, as these have led to the emergence of more toxic “pseudo” ecstasy tablets containing PMA and PMMA. With these substances, a slower onset of effects often leads to the user “topping up” – and, in the worst cases, to accidental overdose deaths.
Other countries have embraced harm-reduction approaches in clubs with a great deal of success. The most notable example is the Drug Information and Monitoring System (DIMS) system in the Netherlands that allows safe, legal testing of drugs for anyone. It has the added advantage of letting the authorities know when new dangerous variants arrive, such as the Superman ecstasy pills that killed several people in the UK but not in the Netherlands, because there officials were able to warn the public.
In Vienna, a club-based testing system has proved very successful and has inspired a similar model currently being tested on a small scale in the UK.
Fiona Measham, a professor of criminology at Durham University who is behind the scheme, is championing harm reduction through a new charity that has conducted safety testing at the Warehouse Project in Manchester and also at two UK festivals this year. Multi-agency safety testing, as its name suggests, is supported by several groups including, most importantly, the local police in Manchester, who have a forward-looking and responsible attitude to young people’s drug use, in contrast to the regressive, backward looking attitude of the Met.
If we really care about deaths in clubs, we should keep them open and make them safe, using a range of proven approaches such as this, not drive them underground.