When it comes to clubbing and drug culture in post-Fabric Britain, many questions have been left without reply. Miranda Bunnis searches for answers
With the recent closure of famed London nightclub Fabric being blamed on the rise in ecstasy deaths the venue experienced, it has prompted many to wonder about the future of Britain’s clubbing scene, and what venues could do to tackle this problem.
The era of acid house and ecstasy in the 80s is one of Britain’s biggest youth revolutions, which generated an entirely new music scene and drug culture. Over two decades, dozens of DJs, new genres, and hundreds of dance floors later, Britain’s nightclub scene has unquestionably changed, but is most certainly not dead.
Similarly, to the legendary Hacienda night club in Manchester, Britain today is still filled with renowned super clubs that are crammed with house headed party goers; The Warehouse Project in Manchester, Motion in Bristol, The Ministry of Sound and XOYO in London. However, the most recent and controversial decision to close one of London’s most iconic clubs, Fabric, has caused a buzz of outrage across the country. “It’s a worrying thing really,” Al Bradley, a DJ who has played at the legendary Fabric discussed. “I mean where do you stop, if you can close Fabric? If you close a nightclub because someone has died from taking drugs, then really you are opening up a huge can of worms.”
The debate still plays on to whether the club is truly closing its doors once and for all due to the six deaths that occurred in the venue over the last four years, as well as it acting as a base for the consumption of illegal drugs. “By closing the venue, Islington Council have simply shifted the ‘problem’ to other venues,” Bradley said. “Which more than likely won’t have the same safety procedures as Fabric did; how is that helping the situation?”
Alistair Turnham, a researcher, planner, and leading specialist on the evening and night time economy, helped to put a paper together about the context in which Fabric was closed down. He discussed his opinion on the evidence that was provided by the police and council for the club’s license being provoked. “The evidence itself is anecdotal, amateurish, and weak. The reason I believe the evidence should be challenged is because nobody was implemented for selling [drugs], no drugs were confiscated. While not doubting police are being honest in their approach of what they saw, their evidence is very interpretative, subjective.”
“However the council, when two people tragically died recently, was within its rights based on that evidence, however poor, able to close the club,” Turnham said.
Cameron Leslie, co-founder and director of Fabric is convinced that it is in fact all down to a grudge the council had with the nightclub, he recently expressed in a documentary aired on BBC Radio 1 about the closure of Fabric. In the documentary, presented by BBC Radio 1 DJ B Traits, Leslie spoke out about how the relationship between the club, council and police changed after the first death in the venue.
“There has [been 6 deaths in the last four years] and you do have to take a step back and say, in the last 4 [years] what’s changed?” Leslie said on the documentary, comparing the clubs first nine-year reign that saw no deaths. Claiming nothing has changed, not even their Saturday night residences since the club opened, Leslie spoke of the noticeable changes in societal behaviour. “What it comes down to is the massive strength and increase in drugs, that when your dealing with a micro percentage of people coming through the doors, it only needs to go wrong (once), and you see the situation that we are dealing with here.”
“It’s difficult to say whether society has changed,” Turnham said. “There has definitely been an increase in the number of stimulants taken. Overall, recreational drug taking has fallen since the 90s. You have to look at each individual case separately, rather than looking at trends, as each individual’s reaction to taking drugs is completely different.”
Turnham, who has helped develop over 100 projects to improve town centres after dark with his organisation MADE, made a point in his paper on Fabric that many failed to tackle. “The people who died took drugs hidden in a purse or bra, which has been going on for years. If you hide MDMA or a tablet in your sock or down your pants, it is impossible for any door search to find it without going too far,” Turnham said. The only way to check that is with a cavity based search, like in an airport, that is not practical in clubs. “How can you close a club down when door staff have done everything and couldn’t have prevented that situation anymore?”
“However tragic those deaths are, those people bought those drugs into the club and consumed them themselves,” Turnham pointed out, “no matter how young and inexperienced they were.”
“There is a bigger societal conversation to be had about the drug taking, in terms of what society tolerates. The taking of drugs is not illegal anyway, that is just possession of drugs.”
Tim Millar, a Reader in Substance Use and Addictions in the division of Psychology and Mental Health at The University of Manchester, gave his opinion on the ecstasy-related deaths: “There are some signs of a fairly recent ‘uptick’ in the trend for ecstasy among younger age groups.”
Many have actually even seen the closure of Fabric as a potential danger to the rise in the misuse of drugs in London and across Britain if the night club scene changes, as the venue was such a safe environment for party goers to take the substances in if they are going to be taken. “I mean it’s just a fact that people do take drugs; there’s no point pretending it doesn’t happen,” Bradley said. “Fabric was one of the most well-organised, professionally run, safest environments for people to go out to.” Turnham also spoke of how Fabric’s strict search routine was amongst one of the most thorough he had come across.
The infamous Hacienda, first opened by legendary music label, Factory Records and commonly compared to the Fabric of the 80s and 90s, was also one of the many nightclubs home to the distinguishing musical ethos of Madchester in 1988-89, the ‘Second Summer of Love’. More widely known as the name given to the ecstasy driven period in Britain, it was at a time when there was an explosion of un-licensed MDMA-fuelled drug parties. “In the early 90s it [ecstasy] played a very big part to the culture—the electronic music club scene frankly wouldn’t have happened [or] developed without it,” Bradley said.
“It allowed people to really escape in a way they’d not ever have done on a night out before. It sounds a bit cheesy, but it genuinely did bring people together; if you were at a club and the vast majority of people were taking ecstasy, then you really did feel like you were all ‘as one’.”
With the rise of nightclubs all run by top DJ’s such as Shoom, widely credited as one of the original founders of the UK rave scene Danny Rampling, the club Future that was led by the legendary Paul Oakenfold, Nicky Holloway running Trip, and of course Mike Pickering running Hacienda in Manchester, the beginnings of rave-infused MDMA nights took off in the UK. “It was simply unlike anything else I’d seen,” Bradley remembers about Hacienda. “People cheering in a nightclub—that only happened on football terraces!”
The UK continues to have the highest rates in MDMA use in Europe, with 3.9% of 16-24 year olds reporting having used ecstasy in the past year in the latest Home Office Crime Survey for England and Wales. The rise in ecstasy-related deaths has in fact increased: in 2010, there were ten ecstasy-related deaths, in comparison to 2015’s figures of 57 deaths. However, the rise in deaths is not related to increased use, the level of ecstasy intake has remained quite stable over the last ten years. It is the increase in the purity of ecstasy tablets, compared to five years ago; tablets are now stronger, and are being made with harsher and even life-threatening chemicals, Professor Fiona Mesham, a Criminology lecturer from Durham University says in an interview with BBC Radio 1.
“The number of deaths involving ecstasy is very low compared to the number of people who use the drug,” Millar pointed out. “For example, there were almost 2,000 drug deaths involving opioids, even though the number of people who use illicit opioids is very much less than the number who use ecstasy.”
Many other European cities have also been confronting the issue of drug use in clubs. Zurich, for example, have been using front of house testing for the last seven years, and have had zero party related deaths in that time period, while the Netherlands put out a warning about the dangers of the ‘superman’ pill circulating their clubbing scene, that contained a deathly substance called PMA, and also, as a result, had zero deaths caused from the tablet.
“As someone who’s also played over in Berlin a few times, it’s amazing to see the difference in their attitudes; it’s accepted that people go out and take drugs, but their venues are treated as ‘high culture’,” Bradley said.
Many clubs and festivals all around the Britain are similarly choosing to tackle this problem head on, by introducing forensic testing on sites and in nightclubs. The Loop is an organization that conducts such testings and provides welfare support. The forensic testing reflects the high purity rates, with the MDMA crystal currently in circulation in the UK at a high purity level of 83% and even higher at recent festivals.
“The need for a better education in young adults is vital,” Turnham said: “The education we have in this country is terrible.” Turnham also spoke about how the likes of Amsterdam and Berlin were miles ahead in terms of getting a handle on their drug culture.
This also begs the question whether having such drug testing stations, that inform clubbers whether their drugs are safe to take, is encouraging young people to take drugs.
“At the moment it seems to be a very sensible approach, I think evidence exists it would work, speaking generally,” Turnham said. “I agree that we should do all that we can to reduce the potential harms that arise from taking drugs,” Millar added.
The Loop has also partnered up with some of the biggest organisations and festivals in order to help prevent potentially life threatening drugs coming into contact with party goers, including at Warehouse Project, Fabric, Secret Garden Party, and Kendal Calling. They take a sample of drugs from people who choose to use the service, and then inform them about their drug, what it contains, and the relevant risks or impacts they can have. A quarter of people that have used their services asked The Loop to dispose of their drugs immediately, while another large portion of people came back at a later date to ask about drugs they have taken in the past. They are eager to convey that though do not condone drug taking, their mission is to inform and educate.
With Fabric all set to return on November 26th, to appeal the withdrawal of its licence, can we learn from the closure of one of London’s most iconic clubs? “I don’t think by closing Fabric it really gets the heart of the problem,” Turnham answered. “We need measures, about reducing the potential harm for those who are choosing to take drugs.” Such goals are to be met through education and initiative, not by closing the club. “Those who are taking drugs will not stop, they will only take them in a place with not nearly as many precautions.”
The obvious conclusion here is that there has to be some coming together of venues, clubbers, councils, and the police. The revolution of a generation obsessed with dance music combined with substance consumption is a culture that has long been brewing in Britain, and worldwide. The clear awareness now that people will and do experiment with a range of substances—whether that be MDMA, cocaine, legal highs, or alcohol—is evident, and the aim should be to make these environments safer for party goers, not eliminate them.
“If the closure of Fabric leads to a greater understanding and working together across all nightlife…” Bradley said, “then I guess that can only be a good thing.”