Guest blog by Toby Niblock
Tasked with a dissertation during a pandemic, I set out to research illegal raves in the time of COVID-19. I was interested to gain an understanding of what harm reduction measures were typically in place at illegal raves in the UK, and contrast these to licensed events.
As central and national UK governments gave the green light, and we return to clubs and festivals, the drug policy environment remains hostile to harm reduction measures. I was optimistic that time away from the dancefloor may have allowed ravers to reflect on the importance of practicing effective and efficient drug-harm reduction just in time for our return to these hedonistic spaces. However, it appears this was not the case.
That said, the onus of responsibility is not solely with the ravers themselves, rather, it includes ravers, promoters, club owners, DJs, public health authorities, law enforcement, and government. Current drug policy significantly hinders the fundamentals of harm reduction practices within rave spaces; and, despite the efforts of harm reduction organisations, other institutions such as social media platforms also act as censors—effectively blocking information from reaching people who use drugs.
Meanwhile, social media sites like Instagram removed the Pill Report account—a drug-harm reduction page—from the platform. Its removal came in the aftermath of drug-related hospitalisations and fatalities in England, seemingly linked to a batch of ecstasy tablets. Despite Pill Report being an educational platform used to raise awareness on harm-reduction measures, the page was removed for “breaking community guidelines”.
In March 2020, as the pandemic emerged and restrictions ensued, the night-time economy came to a standstill and these important leisure and community spaces were forgotten about. During this time, we saw an onslaught of news stories reporting on the increased number of so-called ‘illegal raves’. If the media’s narrative was anything to go by, the pandemic caused an explosion of unlicensed events each branded as dangerous, remorseless, and ruthless. Police services were even granted emergency powers to tackle the issue, enabling them to fine organisers up to £10,000. However, it is worth mentioning that an investigation by Mixmag found that the data which the Home Office used to justify the implementation of these powers had significant methodological flaws, yielding incorrect statistics.
The pandemic induced a sense of nostalgia about the Acid House movement and raves. People attended unlicensed events irrespective of the COVID-19 restrictions to defy political and societal norms, but also as a means of escapism and to take back control of their lives, regardless of morality.
It’s difficult to think about dance culture without its relationship to drug culture. One participant in my research referred to this as an “intrinsic and almost unbreakable bond. Although many people involved in the electronic dance music scene do not participate in drug use, drugs have a key role in dance culture—as they do in many cultures.
Drug checking and harm reduction organisations such as the Loop, Pill Report Official and Bristol Drugs Project are doing fantastic work with regards to minimising the risk of drug-related harms, raising awareness, and overall normalising discussion of the taboo subject that is drug use. Nevertheless, harm reduction organisations are primarily situated at licensed events and festivals, and even then, most festivals and licensed events have a zero-tolerance policy towards drugs and offer no harm reduction information.
What about illegal events, was there a safety net at these events to ensure the wellbeing of attendees? Do the organisers of these events really have the dance culture community in mind?
To find out, I spoke to promoters, DJs, academics, ex-police officers and drug reform advocates. My findings from these conversations suggested that the harm reduction model lacked significantly at unlicensed events, with a vast majority having little harm reduction measures in place—largely attributed to limited resources. If the policy environment is lacking, and if established harm reduction organisations cannot access rave spaces, then it is down to individual organisers and punters to promote and embody harm reduction practices.
Even with regards to security, it appeared there was little to no security teams in place at unlicensed events, and if there was, it was often linked to organised crime. However, perhaps the absence of security is the draw of unlicensed events. The negative stigma associated with bouncers and the unintended consequences they cause when tasked with drug policing, including riskier drug taking practices, creates an allure for illegal rave spaces as freer and less adversarial.
From gathering information about harm reduction services at unlicensed events, I began to contrast the data with that of licensed events. It became clear that the current harm reduction measures in place can be effective and proactive in minimising drug-related harms within the dance music scene. In addition to this, punters have their own DIY culture of harm reduction by using reagent kits or simply just organised collectives raising awareness around safer drug use. This DIY culture is promising; however, it is not present everywhere, and is usually limited to particular politics, groups, and places.
Within my research, each of the shortfalls within the harm reduction model pointed towards dated and ineffective UK drug policy. My findings support the consensus that drug-related harms are predominantly associated with a lack of information, limited knowledge, and insufficient drug education. More so than ever, time and resources should be dedicated to educating people and informing them of the potential dangers of drug use and how to use drugs sensibly.
One major aspect of the harm reduction model is drug testing facilities. My research demonstrated that they are a massive step in the right direction, helping to reduce the risks associated with consuming drugs. However, to further the effectiveness of testing facilities, event organisers should be able to implement this service free from judgement and the information must be communicated to those opting to use drugs. We saw the pictures of the blue Tesla ecstasy pill which were shared over social media, yet as my participants stated in interviews, how is anyone to know they come from the same batch of pills just because they look similar? There have been numerous evidenced reports of pills which look the same yet have radically different contents.
It is no surprise that the greatest threat to people who use drugs is drug policy. The draconian prohibitionist stance is no longer, and for the most part, never has been effective in preventing drug use and minimising harms.
As COVID-19 restrictions ease and people eagerly venture out to enjoy themselves, this is an ideal time to educate on safety and ensure we are doing harm reduction as best we can in both legal and illegal rave spaces. If social media pages are restricted from educating and informing people, then seemingly we have fallen at the first hurdle. Those opting to use drugs are going to continue being at a greater risk than the drugs themselves may pose. The time is now to change our drug policy in the direction of decriminalisation. In the meantime, each of us should demand that harm reduction information and practice are available and accessible to all.