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Caught in the Act

by Jo Chipchase and Kevin Buckle


The '1997 Public Entertainments Licences (Drug Misuse) Act' will become operational later this month, when the Secretary of State issues a commencement order. Introduced to address the 'serious problem' of drug use at dance events, the Act makes it easy for licensing authorities, acting on the advice of local police, to revoke the licenses of clubs that have a "drug problem" and are not seen to be dealing with it effectively. Critics of the Act believe the legislation is too harsh, and could jeopardise the nightclub industry. So how did the Act come about? How are the club industry and local authorities reacting to it? And what is the likely impact on club culture?

Looking at the history of the Act, you could easily think it is a knee-jerk reaction to the moral panic surrounding Ecstasy-related casualties. It was placed on the statute as a Private Member's Bill by Barry Legg MP, during the aftermath of Leah Betts' death. At its November 1996 launch, it was supported by the parents of Leah, who have been instrumental in campaigning against Ecstasy use. The Act also closely followed the personal - and high profile - drug confessions of two celebrities, Brian Harvey of East 17 and Noel Gallagher of Oasis.

Despite the song and dance that accompanied its introduction, the Act was in the pipeline long before Noel Gallagher claimed taking drugs is "like having a cup of tea". A review of licensing law had been underway since early 1996, and the thinking behind Barry Legg's Act can be traced back to a 1994 Home Office report, 'Police, Drug Misusers and the Community'. The report recommends discouraging drug use and encourages best practise that promotes public safety - in this case, the safety of club-goers. Government policy favours legal dance events, regulated by licensing, while frowning upon illegal or unlicensed events, which are outside regulatory control.

Matthew Collin, author of 'Altered States - A History of Dance Culture in Britain', is opposed to government policy on club culture. He is cynical about the Act: "First they stopped orbital raves, then illegal outdoor raves, then they drove the scene into clubs. Now they are trying to sanitise what goes on there. Although Barry Legg has been kicked out of the house, everyone has to deal with this piece of legislation. It is unlikely to be repealed."

The legislation amends two earlier Acts. It contains a central clause that reverses the right for a club's license to remain in force during an appeal against refusal or revocation - where there is "a serious problem relating to the supply or use of controlled drugs at the place or at any place nearby which is controlled by the holder of the license". This goes against the traditional appeals procedure and the idea of "innocent until proven guilty".

In the first stage of the refusal/revocation process, the chief officer of police submits a report to the licensing authority, stating there is a "serious problem" relating to drugs at the licensed venue, and giving the reasons for this view. The licensing authority can then refuse, revoke or impose terms upon the licence - "on the ground that they are satisfied that to do so will significantly assist in dealing with the problem." Both these actions are at the discretion of the parties concerned.

Termed "draconian" by the nightclub industry, the Act is potentially catastrophic for promoters, who might find their events suddenly closed.

"The Act does not provide for giving clubs a written warning, nor does a formal hearing take place," says Damian Walsh, chief executive of the British Entertainment and Discotheque Association (BEDA), a trade association representing UK nightclubs. "Although we agree in principle with what it is trying to achieve, we believe it is poor legislation, as it does not incorporate enough checks and balances to ensure the police and licensing authorities are acting reasonably." With the London Drug Policy Forum estimating that up to a million Ecstasy tablets are sold each week in Britain (drug use estimates are often on the low side), the ability of clubs to keep drugs out of their premises is questionable in the first place. Under the Act, the burden of policing is effectively transferred to the club owner. "Many people running clubs are nervous about the effects," points out Matthew Collins. "They are worried that the actions of clubbers will cause problems for them, when it's not really their fault."

Underpinning this anxiety is the discretionary nature of the Act. How it will be implemented between police districts depends on each chief ofpolice's definition of a "serious (drugs) problem". What one considers acceptable may be seen by another as grounds for revocation. To address this problem, the Home Office is providing guidance notes and consultation on the Act. Based on 'model conditions' for dance events, the guidance notes are divided into two main sections. The first is aimed at security, door policy and the confiscation, storage and disposal of drugs. The second is concerned with safety and environmental conditions, such as crowding, temperature control, rest areas and the free availability of drinking water - in accordance with the Action Against Drug Unit's 'Dance Till Dawn' document and Manchester's 'Safer Dancing' guidelines.

According to the guidance notes, the license holder is responsible for keeping a record of drug-related incidents and making this available to the police on request. The license holder is also encouraged to "co-operate and liase with all relevant authorities and organisations - including the police, health promotion units and drug community groups". If clubs fail to meet these stringent conditions, they could fall foul of local police and licensing authorities.

Significantly, amongst some police and licensing authorities, knowledge of the Act appears sketchy. When asked about the likely interpretation of "a serious problem relating to drugs", a spokesperson for the Leeds City Council licensing unit claimed to have received no notification of the legislation from the Home Office, and was unable to comment. Additionally, a spokesperson for the West Yorkshire police, which works with this licensing unit, was unaware of a late amendment to the legislation that reduces the licensee's responsibility for incidents in the area outside their control.

When asked about use of discretion, a spokesperson for West Yorkshire Police suggested: "What we consider to be 'well run clubs' will be informally warned (they have a problem), even though there is no statutory obligation to do so. On the other hand, 'known rogue operators' will receive no warning - as these situations are seen as one-offs, usually indicating a persistent problem with a particular event. In such a situation a drug-related incident might precipitate revocation."

He added that each case would be assessed on its merits, using "good police intelligence", and that West Yorkshire Police will use the power of the legislation sparingly, as proprietors may not always be aware a problem exists. Similarly, a spokesperson for the licensing unit of the Metropolitan Police Clubs and Vice Unit suggests that "well-run clubs have nothing to fear, as the legislation is aimed at rogue-clubs".

Had the legislation been in place earlier, the Metropolitan Police could have swiftly closed down the infamous Club UK in Wandsworth. Despite a string of drug-related deaths on its premises, Club UK was able to keep operating until it finally lost its license in early 1997, after a revocation decision by the licensing unit of Wandsworth Borough Council. Barry Legg's legislation closes this loophole, that allowed 'rogue' events to run for up to two years on appeal.

The ability of a club to be seen as 'well run' rather than 'rogue' is the crux of the matter. However, despite the possible implications - including the need to spend on tougher anti-drugs measures and the potential loss of business - the reaction of club promoters varies from mild anxiety to support. Some large players, including the Ministry of Sound, Granada Hospitality and Rank Leisure, were consulted on the implementation of the Act and are, presumably, satisfied with it's terms (the Ministry was unwilling to comment). Club promoters seem to sympathise with its intentions - at least on the surface.

Dave Beer, club owner and promoter of Back To Basics, admits to "going crazy" when he first heard the terms of the Act, as he has "spent a lot of time setting up clubs". However, Beer has changed his view: "The Ecstasy explosion was an experimental period and now the situation needs sorting out. The police will not be closing down clubs without good cause. Gangsters knocking out pills to people is not what it's about."

His attitude is echoed by Charlie Chester, a long-standing promoter of events around the UK. Chester, who claims to have received an "off-the-record directive" from the police on interpreting the Act, suggests: "If you run a clean club the police will respect you for it. They're unlikely to come charging in for the sake of it." However, despite his optimism, Chester concedes that most club promoters are wary of the Act. He explains: "If you hand someone in, the police may think 'oh - there's drugs in that club' but, at the same time, they'll respect you for it. We recently handed in someone we caught with E's, and it turned out they had caused deaths. The police were pleased with us."

James Bailey, a long-standing promoter of events in the Midlands, believes all clubs should take heed of Home Office criteria and introduce new drug-prevention steps, such as random searches. According to Bailey, clubs in Nottingham are co-operating with the police over the reporting of drug incidents. "At our events, we ensure that staff know about first aid, report drug incidents, confiscate drugs and throw out those seen taking them."

However, another promoter suggests the important issue is being seen to co-operate. He says: "In some clubs, drugs confiscated on the door are kept in a box. Some are sold on, while the rest are handed over to the police to keep them happy. If you don't hand over any drugs, it makes them suspicious."

Taking this attitude a step further, will the Act encourage clubs to lie about drug use? Damian Walsh of BEDA thinks so: "Suppose you have two clubs in one area, club A and club B, that are in competition. Club A co-operates fully with the police and local authorities and ends up with a list of drug incidents that might unfavourably influence a license hearing. Club B, on the other hand, takes care of drug incidents in-house and has fewer incidents on record that could go against it. In this way, rather than encouraging informed discussion on drug misuse, the Act provides an incentive for club owners to brush things under the carpet."

But how far is the brushing-aside behaviour likely to go? Will clubs be unwilling to call ambulances for those having ecstasy-related difficulties, in case it is used as evidence against them? Simon Fox, a Coventry-based promoter, thinks a club's relationship with the police will define its willingness to bring drug-related incidents to the attention of local authorities. "Mainstream clubs will go certainly go by the book and call an ambulance, as it is in their training procedures," he points out. "In many other clubs, people having problems will be taken care of in-house. If they are in a really bad way, they will be taken to hospital."

Some larger operators, including Cream and the Ministry of Sound, have taken the lead in setting up medical rooms, where they can take people who've over-indulged. At the other end of the scale, Fox is aware of 'rogue' operators who take an irresponsible approach. "I know of one club that put someone who had overdosed on the street. Within the space of a week, this club had been raided and shut down."

Despite this grim tale, he believes club owners will become more responsible as a result of the Act - a view shared by other promoters and BEDA. "It's possible that clubgoers have become more accustomed to taking drugs anyway," he adds. "People who've done it for ages are advising others and making them feel safer."

So, with drug-taking firmly entrenched in youth culture, does the Act address the problem at all? Allan Haughton, manager of Manchester-based drugs agency, Lifeline, thinks not. "Drug taking is endemic, and you can't just place it in one location - nightclubs. If anyone believes this Act will stop young people taking drugs, rather than simply putting fear into 'rogue clubs', they are misguided. Blanket legislation such as this can actually cause more damage than good, as it is concerned with stopping drugs rather than creating a safe environment for young people."

Haughton believes that, rather than closing down clubs that have drugs problems - a superficial and visible political tactic - it would be preferable to reward those that do well. He points out that there are two sides in the debate; one that is opposed to drug use and wants it stopped, and the other that would let it continue. He suggests: "While these two sides are at loggerheads, constructive action will not be taken."

There is also the issue that drugs get into the clubbers before they get into

the clubs. James Bailey highlights the difficulties of preventing drug use. "It's hard to detect people who are taking Ecstasy - this is a social problem, not a club thing. There will always be drugs in clubs, simply because it is a taboo thing and people like things that are taboo. They like to live on the edge."

Even the London Drug Policy Forum admits, in its document, 'Dance Till Dawn', that trying to stop drug use is futile: "While everything possible should be done to deter young people from taking drugs, it is unrealistic to expect this can be completely achieved." The Unit therefore recommends harm reduction through health and safety legislation.

Faced with the prospect of fighting a losing battle - after all, if you can't stop drugs getting into prisons, how can you stop them getting into clubs - license holders are implementing stringent security measures. According to dance music magazine, Mixmag, clubs in Birmingham have reacted by hiring sniffer dogs to check out customers as they queue. Less drastic but still 'big brother-ish', the use of CCTV, strict body searches and security staff in nightclub toilets looks set to become commonplace.

Collins says: "To avoid being seen as rogue operators, club owners will become heavier-handed with patrons. The atmosphere in clubs will become more oppressive, which is not ideal for having a good time." He believes that, to avoid a drug-taking crowd, club owners will adopt mainstream music and promotion policies. He says: "This will lend weight to the underground scene, as party organisers will seek to create freer, more liberalised environments. It will harden their resolve and bolster political consciousness in club culture."


Damian Walsh of BEDA agrees: "If the Act is going to be used as a stick to beat club operators, it will simply displace the problem elsewhere - into pubs, private parties and unlicensed events. By closing down clubs, it doesn't cater for making improvements where problems exist. A broader, macro approach to drugs policy needs to be taken."

In failing to tackle the drugs issue on a wider scale, instead targeting a particular niche - nightclubs - will the Act stifle the UK's vibrant club scene, going against the "swinging Britain" image the government is so keen to foster? Walsh doesn't believe the situation will go that far. "There's more to the club scene than drugs, so that isn't really an issue. What the Act will do is force the industry to take a close look at its drugs policy, which is not necessarily a bad thing."

Certainly, the face of clubbing looks set to change - a step beyond the shifts in music, culture and attitude that have already occurred during the last few years. It is telling that Beer, who agrees that clubs are becoming increasingly mainstream, suggests that it's time for something new to emerge, and seems disillusioned with the scene as it stands. House music, once the preserve of the underground, has become the disco music of the nineties.

Perhaps the sanitisation of the club scene is the logical next step - a movehelped in its natural progression by Barry Legg's Act? Or perhaps the Act is a deliberate tactic to clean up the club scene, before the big, corporate players come along and carve up the market? With clubs such as the Ministry of Sound becoming involved in the political and legislative process, this idea is not too far-fetched. The term "diffusion clubbing" has recently crept into clubland's vocabulary. It means selling out to diffuse the situation, rather than risking being caught by the Act.

©Jo Chipchase and Kevin Buckle 1997 index
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