High society: Britain's drug-taking clubbers
Almost all Britain’s thousands of clubbers routinely take drugs, in particular cocaine , cannabis and ecstasy
It’s Friday midnight and, in the corner of a vast Manchester nightclub, I’m having an earnest discussion with Becky, a sensible, homely-looking woman in her mid-30s, who has two lines of cocaine and several Ecstasy tablets coursing around her bloodstream.
“Plus I’ve just taken some MDMA powder, but it hasn’t kicked in yet,” she tells me, as if discussing headache remedies. “I won’t touch ketamine, though, not in a million years.”
Within 36 hours, the wholesome, sturdy Becky, normality personified, will be back at her desk as a middle manager in a big Manchester company. But right now, in the hammering maelstrom of the club, with the glaze of chemicals on her face, she’s planning to finish her £50 of coke — good stuff, she says, not any old rubbish; you’ve got to be careful who you buy from — take more Ecstasy, and then dance until daylight.
“I started using drugs to go clubbing when I was 16,” she says. “I’ll probably stop soon because my boyfriend is getting tired of it, but I’ll miss it. Tonight, I’ll go on all night, spend Saturday recovering, and I’ll be at work on Monday as usual.”
Becky (not her real name) is neither alone nor, difficult as it may be to believe, incongruous. The first wideranging academic study of clubbers’ behaviour in a decade, released today, indicates that thousands of apparently successful, healthy and economically active people in their twenties, thirties and forties choose to be heavy recreational drug users at the weekend.
Not only do the findings suggest almost ubiquitous drug use in and around Britain’s clubs, in particular cannabis, cocaine and Ecstasy, but they point to the emergence of new substances on the pharmaceutical block, such as ketamine and GHB, being used increasingly by clubbers as part of assorted drug “repertoires” at the weekends.
Ketamine, a Class C drug, is an anaesthetic, sometimes used on animals, which causes temporary hallucinations. GHB — gammahydroxybutrate — is also Class C and produces a feeling of euphoria. Both can be dangerous, powerful drugs.
Dr Fiona Measham and Dr Karenza Moore, criminologists from Lancaster University, set out to explore the hidden world of pharmaceutical intoxication in Britain’s bars and night clubs. What they found, in the most thorough examination ever undertaken of drugs across the British night-time economy, was extraordinary.
They discovered evidence that almost all Britain’s thousands of clubbers routinely take drugs, in particular cocaine (tried by 83 per cent of people), cannabis (93 per cent) and ecstasy (85 per cent). Eight in ten had taken a drug within the previous month, and nearly two in three of those questioned had taken, or were going to take, drugs on the night they were surveyed.
These statistics, published today in the journal Criminology and Criminal Justice, and exclusively revealed in The Times, demonstrate how drug-enduced dancing and socialising has become a significant part of modern culture, albeit taking place “under the radar” with the tacit acceptance of police, politicians and economists.
Indeed, the figures indicate that much of Britain’s burgeoning night-time economy, worth as much as £30 billion, and employing about one million people, is inextricably linked to the night-long consumption of illegal drugs. The trend is such that the main clubbing nights have been moved from Saturdays to Fridays specifically to allow people to recover in time for work or lectures on Monday morning.
The extent and complexity of drug use that the academics uncovered surprised them. “Everyone knows that it goes on,” says Measham, a senior lecturer in criminology, whose 2001 study Dancing on Drugs was until now the seminal study of recreational drug use. “How else would the clubbers stay awake until 5am, when the club closes? But it’s unspoken.
“Drug taking is implicitly facilitated but it’s the individual who takes the risks. And there are risks — the implications of having a criminal record on your career, for one, and the health aspects.
“One of the big surprises was the scale of polydrug use [the taking of several substances]. Fifteen years ago people would take an Ecstasy tablet or two and a wrap of speed; now they are taking a whole range of drugs without knowing what the impact is of these polydrug cocktails. We just don’t know about ketamine and GHB. We’re seeing a lot more use of both drugs. Ketamine has not displaced Ecstasy but it has been added to the repertoire.”
With permission from club proprietors, Measham and Moore did their fieldwork in Manchester, the epitome of the 24-hour party city. They set up a website to verify their work to clubbers, then interviewed them at the start of the evening before the drugs had made revellers too intoxicated.
One of the fundamental ironies the research uncovered is that because recreational drug users fuel the economy and cause few social problems — violent crime, aggression and antisocial behaviour are much more likely to be alcohol-related and occur outside pubs — they fail to get the support and services they need.
“There is a lack of knowledge about the types of drugs, a lack of accurate, non-judgmental and non-sensationalist information for these users,” says Moore, a lecturer in criminology. “Ketamine, for instance, does not go well with alcohol. Nor does GBL [which coverts to GHB in the body], which is widely used as an industrial cleaner, and is not illegal. I’ve been working with one man who had a serious daily dependency on GBL, but the doctors simply didn’t know what to do with him.”
Here too is highlighted another contradiction: between the growing commercialisation of the night-time economy and the increasing government policy of what Measham calls “the criminalisation of intoxication” without education, advice or treatment services attached. The people who suffer, under the present situation of tacit tolerance of drugs, are the users. “Even if the club owners wanted harmreduction literature in their club, it would acknowledge that there was drug taking on the premises. And they are concerned about being arrested or shut down.”
Last year the owner of the Dance Academy in Plymouth, Manoucehr Bahmanzadeh, and its manager, Tom Costelloe, were found guilty of allowing the venue to be used for the supply of Ecstasy and jailed for nine years and five years respectively. This despite neither man having actually sold drugs on the premises.
On the Manchester streets at 10pm, as the revellers wait to enter the club, everyone is playing the game, and everybody knows the boundaries. A police car arrives and officers shake hands with the club owner. This appears to be the unspoken pact: as long as your clients are discreet, and don’t cause problems, we will all pretend there’s nothing going on.
Local police say that their main targets are the dealers. Sergeant Dave Gloster, the North Manchester drugs co-ordinator, says: “Elicit drug use is not condoned but it has to be noted that if people are taking drugs and not committing any crime under the influence, then it becomes difficult for officers to monitor this. Our main concern is to target dealers, suppliers and organised drug rings so that we can put a stop to these drugs being made available.
“Our city safe team . . . regularly make visits to licensed premises and use drug wipes in toilets to monitor if drugs are being used. Plans are then put in place with venue owners to prevent this activity.”
Clubbers of all ages queue quietly outside the Manchester venue — many, Measham’s evidence would suggest, already “front-loaded” with drugs. Notably, only people who have taken alcohol are behaving obnoxiously. The security on entry is strict but not too strict: Measham and Moore found that in practice only large quantities of drugs — ie, too much for personal use — will be removed from clubbers.
Once inside, within an hour we observe conversation among clubbers tail off as the drugs start to kick in. The dancefloor becomes a seething, yet friendly, frenzy. The drum and bass music, a fast, repetitive beat, is turned up louder and louder until you can, literally, feel your breastbone vibrating. Another clubber, who works in television, is dismissive when questioned about drugs. “You can’t appreciate the music unless you take drugs,” she says. People discreetly squeeze into toilets two at a time to take cocaine.
In this evasive world, there are wry contradictions. A woman dressed as an usherette tries to sell us popcorn from a tray, parodied, shortly after, by a man carrying trays of vials of liquid labelled “room aroma £5” — alkyl nitrites, or poppers, which are not controlled drugs but cannot be sold for human consumption. Hence the euphemism in order to adhere to the rules of the secret game.
By midnight, the club has become hugely crowded, with bottlenecks at doorways. But instead of any feeling of menace, as would come with alcohol, these clubbers are calm, internalised, non-aggressive. They are a disparate bunch — many are obviously students, but there are groups of prosperous-looking single men and women in their twenties and thirties, and a sprinkling of couples who appear to be in their forties or fifties. Few are drinking; most hover round the seething mass of the dancefloor, moving to the compulsive rhythm. Talking is impossible.
What is important, Measham and Moore say, is to draw the distinction between this kind of recreational drug use, and the problem drug use that dominates the political agenda and absorbs its resources. The two groups do not overlap; the dealers are different; and so are the drugs. Clubbers almost never take heroin or crack cocaine, the academics’ surveys show, and they remain in society. The UK’s problem drug users, with a daily dependency on such drugs, may be hugely outnumbered by the recreational drug takers — 150,000 as opposed to four million — but they remain the focus of government policy.
To use the phraseology of Russell Newcombe, a drug researcher for Lifeline Manchester, drugs represent “cocktails of celebration” for one group. For the other, they are a “cocktail of oblivion”. And the difference is profound.
Significantly, however, trends are changing. Recent analysis from the NHS’s National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse shows 22 per cent fewer young adults with a drug problem are using heroin and crack, and the number of under-25s seeking treatment for dependency on cocaine has risen 11 per cent.
To visit a club is to witness striking inconsistencies in the way that society deals with drugs. It is amusing to see a line of people, most of who have taken illegal drugs, queueing politely to get outside to the smoking area to consume a drug that is banned inside.
The lack of focus, criminal and otherwise, on recreational drugs means the risks to clubbers are going largely unassessed. Measham and Moore are concerned about the health impact from the new fashion for mixing drugs. The outcry over the death of Leah Betts appears not to have checked universal acceptance of Ecstasy, although there have been more than 200 Ecstasyrelated deaths in the UK since 1996. Many younger clubbers, the academics discovered, are ignorant of the fact that the increasingly popular MDMA powder is pure Ecstasy; and few are aware that ketamine is dangerous when mixed with alcohol.
“We would like to see a sensible debate about drugs without the shock, horror bit — if only because of the sheer numbers we see involved,” says Measham. “People have a desire to get intoxicated on a Friday night — the American pharmacologist Ronald Siegel once described intoxication as the fourth strongest irrepressable human desire after food, sleep and sex.
“That suggests that blanket prohibition is destined to be a disaster. We need a more sophisticated but also more realistic response. If people have a choice they don’t really want to break the law. That’s where the debate needs to take place.”
98 per cent of club customers had tried an illegal drug at least once
79 per cent had taken an illegal drug within the previous month
Only half as many bar customers (35 per cent) had taken an illegal drug in the previous month
85 per cent of clubbers had tried Ecstasy at least once
83 per cent had tried cocaine at least once
44 per cent had tried ketamine at least once
40 per cent had tried MDMA at least once
Melanie Reid The Times
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