Calculating the risk: recreational drug use among clubbers in the South East of England
Executive summary This report presents the key findings from a research study exploring recreational drug and alcohol use among young people who attend mainstream commercial nightclubs. Illicit drugs have been associated with the dance and rave culture since its emergence in the late 1980s, but with the expansion of the nightclub industry and the resulting commercialisation of the dance scene it has been suggested that more young people are now experimenting with illicit drugs. While researchers have studied patterns of illicit drug use amongst young clubbers (Measham et al, 2000; OHagan, 1999; Crew 2000; Brannigan, 1997 and Release 1996) very little information is available about alcohol use. This study specifically focuses on those who attend mainstream nightclubs to assess to what extent these club-goers use illicit drugs, the role of drugs in the dance culture and the strategies drug-using club-goers use to minimise the risks associated with drugs. Although, the focus is on the use of illicit drugs the report also examines alcohol and, to a lesser extent, tobacco use among this sub-group. Key findings The study combined a quantitative interview survey of 760 club-goers in six venues (eight events) across the South East of England with in-depth interviews with 26 drug-using club-goers. Patterns of illicit drug use This study confirms that the prevalence of drug use is far higher among those who go clubbing than among other young people. While the British Crime Survey (a survey of the general household population in England and Wales) indicates that 50 per cent of young people aged 16 to 29 have used drugs at some time in their life, among the club-goers in this study the figure was 79 per cent. However, the study also found that levels and patterns of drug use among club-goers varied considerably across the eight events sampled. For example, on-the-night use of any illicit drug ranged from nine per cent at an event at a leisure park venue to 70 per cent at an event at an established dance/gay club. At events where drug use was relatively common, ecstasy was by far the most commonly used substance, followed by cannabis and cocaine. For all other substances a tenth or less of club-goers admitted use. A comparison of current drug users with lapsed drug users (excluding those who had only used cannabis) indicated that current users were using a wider range of illicit substances, and increasingly using synthetic drugs such as ketamine and GHB. Over a third (35%) of current drug users said they had used ketamine at some time in their life, with just over a tenth (13%) admitting to having used GHB. The figures for lapsed drug users being seven per cent and three per cent respectively. Although drug use was high among the sample of club-goers, it is important to note that this was not necessarily an integral element to the clubbing event for most of those interviewed. At only two of the events did the majority of respondents admit using drugs on the night. Under a half (44%) of current drug users agreed with the statement that taking drugs is an integral part of my social life. The in-depth interviews with drug-using club-goers, indicated that this group was aware, to some degree, of the health and legal risks associated with their behaviour, and adopted various strategies to minimise these risks. Interviewees avoided buying from dealers in clubs, instead choosing to purchase drugs from known suppliers in their informal social networks and then taking their personal supply into the venue. This approach was considered to minimise the health risks (trusted supplier) and the potential legal consequences (judged inadequacy of door search policies). Interviewees also sought out information to minimise the immediate physical health risks arising from the use of drugs and the excessive physical demands of clubbing, though awareness of longer-term health risks was less evident. Patterns of alcohol use and tobacco use While there is much concern over the use of illicit drugs among club-goers, less attention has been paid to the use of alcohol. This study addressed this issue by assessing alcohol use both in terms of levels of consumption while clubbing and problematic drinking patterns. The majority (90%) of club-goers consumed alcohol on the night of interview, with around a quarter consuming their entire recommended weekly allowance on the night. Moreover, 60 per cent of respondents who drank alcohol, were classified as hazardous drinkers. These findings are a cause for concern. Profiling the sample, only six per cent of those interviewed had not taken any mind altering substance on the night, five per cent had only taken illicit drugs, 60 per cent had only consumed alcohol, and 29 per cent had combined alcohol with illicit drugs. Limited data was collected on tobacco use but the findings do indicate relatively high levels of smoking among this group, with just over a half smoking on a regular basis. Policy implications Drug use is far more prevalent among club-going young people than young people in general. While on-the-night drug use is not necessarily high at every event, it is the case that at all events sampled the majority had tried illicit drugs at some time in their life. Club-goers therefore provide a distinct, and to a large degree captive audience, for targeted harm reduction initiatives. Such initiatives need to be designed both to address issues arising from drug use on the night and more generally to educate club-goers about drug use. Such strategies also offer an opportunity to address the excessive and hazardous levels of alcohol consumption and smoking among club- goers. While any initiative needs to be sensitive to the local problems, there are some general approaches that are worthy of consideration in any context. These are detailed below. It is important to note that many parties have an interest in the effective development and implementation of such initiatives, including club managers/licensees, the local authority licensing units, the police, Drug Action Teams and local drug and alcohol services. These groups need to form effective working partnerships for the successful development and implementation of initiatives. Provision of information This study has indicated that young people actively seek out information about the potential consequences of drug use and make attempts to minimise these. They are therefore likely to be receptive towards the provision of practical, evidence-based information. While such information may not discourage drug and alcohol use, it may minimise the associated health and social risks. A holistic approach covering health, social and legal consequences and the short, medium and long- term potential effects of drug and alcohol use may be fruitful. Alcohol and tobacco use could be addressed in a similar way, and particular attention should be paid to the heightened risks arising from poly-drug use. In addition to providing information, details about local drug and alcohol services should also be advertised. Information could be disseminated in various ways: on tickets for events, on posters or leaflets at venues, or even the advertised presence of a substance misuse worker on site. Tackling drug dealing This study has indicated that most clubbers do not obtain their drugs from dealers while in the club, but purchase their personal supplies from known suppliers within their social network before entering the venue. These findings indicate that the adoption and enforcement of rigorous search policies at the door would provide the most effective means of preventing drug use inside venues. This research found that search policies at venues differed considerably; in several venues the majority of clubbers were searched while at other venues only around one in ten were searched. Club managers should consult with the local police in devising an appropriate search policy. Designing out risk Given that a high proportion of club-goers will have consumed illicit drugs and/or excessive amounts of alcohol it is important that venues are designed to minimise potential adverse reactions. For example, ensuring that the venue is not over-crowded and is adequately ventilated, the provision of seated areas for cooling off and the provision of free, easily accessible water. In addition, staff need to be trained to recognise and deal with drug induced health problems. Further information about the types of measures that can be taken to protect the health and safety of drug-using clubbers can be found in Safer Clubbing, published by the Home Office Drugs Strategy Directorate in conjunction with the London Drug Policy Forum. The report recommends that venues develop a coherent and comprehensive drugs policy and provides a suggested outline for such a policy.