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Recreational drug use among clubbers in the south east of england
The Research, Development andStatistics Directorate exists to
R e c reational drug use among clubbers in the
improve policy making, decisiontaking and practice in support
of the Home Office purpose andaims, to provide the public and
Illicit drugs have been associated with the dance and ‘rave culture’ since its emergence in the
late 1980s but with the expansion and commercialisation of the dance scene it has been
suggested that more young people are now experimenting with illicit drugs. This study
focused on clubbers attending mainstream nightclubs to assess their use of illicit dru g s ,alcohol and tobacco, the role of drugs in the ‘dance’ culture and strategies used by dru g -taking clubbers to minimise risks.
Findings are produced by theResearch, Development and
● 79% of the clubbers had taken drugs at some time in their life, compared with 50% of 16- to
2 9 - y e a r-olds surveyed for the British Crime Survey 2000. Levels and patterns of drug use
varied greatly from 9% at a leisure park event to 70% at an established dance/gay club.
Ecstasy was by far the most commonly used drug whilst clubbing, followed by cannabis and
cocaine. Compared with lapsed drug users, current drug users were experimenting with a
wider range of substances, including synthetic drugs such as ketamine and GHB.
● Despite such high levels of drug use, less than half of the current drug users felt that taking
d rugs was an integral part of their social life.
p u b l i c a t i o n s . rd s @ h o m e o ff i c e . g s i . g o v. u k
Most of the club-goers had drunk alcohol on the night of the interview and two-thirds of thesew e re classified as hazardous drinkers. A third of the overall sample was using both dru g sand alcohol on the night of the surv e y.
● Most of those interviewed were aware of the risks of drug taking; had actively sought
i n f o rmation about the physical and mental health consequences and had taken measures tominimise those risks.
● I n t e rviewees bought their drugs from trusted known suppliers – usually friends – and bro u g h t
them to the venue. They felt this minimised both the health risks and legal consequences oftheir drug taking.
● A rigorous search policy would appear to be the most effective means of reducing drug taking
inside clubbing venues. In addition, venues should be designed to minimise potential adversereactions, with space, ventilation, cooling off areas, free water and properly trained staff .
The 1990s saw the emergence of widespre a d
studies have suggested that drug use is far more
re c reational drug use amongst young people
w i d e s p read amongst clubbers than young
( E S PAD, 1999). The 2000 British Crime Surv e y
people in general (Measham et al., 2001).
(BCS) re p o rts that around a third of both 16- to1 9 - y e a r-olds and 20- to 24-year-olds admitted
As dance music and club culture have been
using drugs in the previous year. Recre a t i o n a l
absorbed by mainstream youth culture there has
d rug use has been linked with the emergence of
been an increasing concern about the use ofre c reational ‘dance drugs’ such as ecstasy,
a strong dance club culture in the UK in the1990s (Collins and Godfre y, 1997). A number of
amphetamines and LSD (Measham et al., 2001).
The views expressed in these findings are those of the authors, not
necessarily those of the Home Office (nor do they reflect Government policy)
In addition, clubs are now often perceived as late night
Table 1 Lifetime drug use comparing the
bars and, there f o re, alcohol use amongst clubbers has
c u rrent study and British Crime Survey (2000)
become more of an issue. This raises not only the publichealth aspect of excessive alcohol consumption, but
additional concerns about the potential harm when
alcohol and drugs are consumed together.
This study aimed to measure the extent of re c reational dru gand alcohol use amongst clubbers and to compare this with
the results of other similar surveys and the findings from the
BCS 2000 drug component. It also aimed to describe the
social context within which drug use takes place and to
examine the strategies drug-taking clubbers use to minimise
the risks associated with their drug use.
A survey of club-goers was undertaken across eight events
in six nightclubs in South East England. 760 clubbers werei n t e rviewed at the events. Each club was selected as a
m a i n s t ream commercial venue. Given the limitations of
working in the club environment a random sample was not
possible. However, attempts were made to re c ruit even
numbers of male and female clubbers. In addition, a gay
venue was included in order to re c ruit gay, lesbian or
bisexual interviewees. Follow-up, in-depth interviews werethen conducted with 26 club-goers to explore in more detail
the role of re c reational drug use in their clubbing.
that night. The lowest was at a leisure park venue where
A key issue for the authors was the likelihood that many of
less than a tenth had used drugs that night. The popularity
their respondents would be under the influence of dru g s
of ecstasy was particularly apparent at the events where
and alcohol when interviewed. They had to establish
d rug use overall was high. For example, at the dance/gay
whether an interviewee was capable of giving inform e d
club event, two-thirds of clubbers used or intended to use
consent and whether the information which re s p o n d e n t s
ecstasy compared with a quarter admitting cannabis use.
p rovided during their interviews was valid. Visible signs ofintoxication were assessed (see Methodological note).
Table 2 P revalence of lifetime drug use –
c u rrent and lapsed users
Findings from the surv e y
The young people interviewed as part of this study are farm o re likely to be drug users than other young people of the
same age (Table 1). 79% of those surveyed had used dru g s
at some stage in their life, compared with 50% of those of a
similar age surveyed by the BCS 2000 (Ramsey et al.,
2001). Rates of use were consistently higher for all dru g s .
Cannabis was the most commonly used drug on a lifetime
measurement. However, on the survey night, ecstasy was
the most frequently used drug, followed by cannabis.
Over a third of respondents were using drugs on the night
Clubbers seem more likely to experiment with a wider
range of illicit substances, particularly synthetic drugs such
as ketamine and GHB. This was most apparent amongst
c u rrent drug users – 35% had taken ketamine and 13%
GHB (Table 2). Amongst lapsed drug users, the figure s
w e re 7% and 3% re s p e c t i v e l y. Current users were also
m o re than twice as likely to have tried crack, magic
Note: Current drug users were defined as those who had used
mushrooms, heroin, temazepam and viagra.
d rugs (not only, but could include cannabis) in the last thre e
P a t t e rns of drug use varied widely between venues. The
months and intended to use drugs in the future (44% of thesample). Lapsed drug users were defined as those who have tried
highest re p o rted use was at a monthly event in the
a variety of drugs (not only, but could include cannabis) but have
dance/gay club. 70% had used or intended to use dru g s
not used drugs for at least three months (14% of the sample).
F u rt h e rm o re, a third of the clubbers were combiningalcohol with illicit drugs, potentially exacerbating the risks
Most of those surveyed (80%) agreed that re c reational dru g
they are taking. Results also indicated that the heaviest
use is a normal part of young people’s lives. However,
c u rrent drug users are less likely to be hazardous drinkers,
p e rhaps more surprisingly, only a quarter felt that drug use
but that former drug users are particularly likely to be
was an integral part of their own social life and most felt
that they would enjoy the clubbing experience without theassociated drug use. However, only a quarter of curre n t
Levels of smoking were higher among clubbers than the
d rug users strongly agreed that they would happily go to a
general population of young people, with half smoking
club and not take drugs. Furt h e rm o re, a tenth of lapsed
re g u l a r l y. Those who were current drug users were more
users did feel that drugs were an integral part of their social
life, suggesting that they might re t u rn to drug use.
Findings from the follow-up interv i e w s
On the night of the interv i e w, friends or acquaintances had
26 in-depth interviews were held with regular dru g -
supplied most respondents (75%) with their drugs and these
experienced clubbers. They explored the context within
w e re cited as their usual source. Ve ry few (16%) claimed to
which clubbers use drugs, their clubbing activity and the
buy from a regular dealer either in a club or other location.
strategies they used to protect themselves from potential
H o w e v e r, ‘friend’ in this context was often used to refer to a
legal and physical risks. As far as possible the
reliable supplier who provides a quality product, rather
demographic profile of the interviewees mirro red that of the
than someone with whom the respondent socialised. This
lends support to other studies that have found that young
H i s t o ry of drug use and patterns of current use
people tend to deal informally amongst themselves (Dornand South, 1990 and Measham et al., 2001).
Most inter viewees described a similar path ofexperimentation with drugs, beginning at around the age of
13 or 14. Alcohol, followed by cannabis, was the first
Most of those interviewed brought their own supply of
substance tried. Ty p i c a l l y, LSD and speed were tried next.
d rugs with them to the club. The club’s search policy will
Ecstasy was, by and large, the next drug to be tried –
t h e re f o re have a direct impact on the amount of dru g s
usually in a club location. Introduction to other substances,
consumed inside. Only a third of clubbers re p o rted being
such as cocaine, ketamine or GHB was more likely to occur
s e a rched on entering the club, though there were wide
d i ff e rences between venues and events. Most considere d
These respondents saw drug use as an integral part of a
door staff searches as ineffective, either not being
good clubbing experience and some drugs, part i c u l a r l y
u n d e rtaken at all or only in a limited or superficial way.
e c s t a s y, were specific to the clubbing experience. Indeed,
Even when searches did occur, female clubbers were
much of the rather ritualistic planning that went into
usually not searched by the predominantly male door staff .
o rganising a night out at a club went into deciding whatsubstances the night would re q u i re and sourcing and
acquiring them. However, drugs were also used outside of
90% of clubbers had either consumed or intended to
the clubbing environment, suggesting that drug use was a
consume alcohol on the night of the surv e y. A quarter of
b roader lifestyle choice for these club-goers.
these had consumed or expected to consume more than thew e e k l y - recommended limit in just one night. Findings fro m
a shortened version of the Alcohol Use Disord e r s
I n t e rviewees did recognise the potential health risks
Identification Test (AUDIT) indicated that 60% of drinkers
attached to drug taking. Most had sought out information to
could be classified as hazard o u s .
verify that their drug use was not physically orpsychologically harmful and many felt they had developedrisk reduction techniques to minimise the impact of their
d rug taking. However, whilst some of these were sensible
The AUDIT is a tool used by generic medical staff to
and based on actual harm reduction strategies (e.g.,
identify problematic alcohol use. It only identifies
keeping hydrated), others were based on urban myths and
p ro ble ma ti c alc oh ol u se a nd not da nger o u s
not proven to be of any benefit (e.g., taking vitamins).
Knowledge, particularly in relation to the longer- t e rm healthimpact of drug use, was patchy. Few interv i e w e e se x p ressed concerns about the potential long-term impact of
Clubbers drunk more frequently and consumed more than
their drug use on their physical or mental health – even if
16- to 24-year-olds sampled in the general household surv e y
they or a friend had had a bad experience with dru g s .
(ONS, 1999). These findings on alcohol use suggest thatmany clubbers are developing problematic and potentially
The clubbers were also relatively unconcerned about the
d a n g e rous drinking habits. At some of the clubs, excessive
potential legal risks of their drug taking. Most believed that
alcohol use was a more pressing issue than illicit drug use.
the strategies they employed protected them from the mostserious legal consequences. These included buying fro m
t rusted sources, never purchasing drugs in a club and taking
Practical measures can also be taken within the club
their own drugs into a club. Most felt that the likelihood of
e n v i ronment to minimise risk. These include provision of:
being searched effectively or arrested was remote. In
• operating policies to prevent overc rowding
addition, they felt that if they were arrested, it was mostlikely that they would receive a police caution.
• adequate air conditioning and ventilation systems
These findings suggest high levels of drug use among young
• a first aid room with staff trained to deal with
people attending mainstream clubs. More o v e r, those
i n t e rviewed consider re c reational drug use to be an integral
• bar staff trained to serve alcohol appropriately and to
p a rt of their clubbing experience. These young people also
recognise the signs of intoxication.
consumed ver y high levels of alcohol and tobacco,
The findings that most clubbers bring their own supplies of
suggesting that policy initiatives should address the health
d rugs suggest that strategies focusing on drug dealing in
and social problems associated with wider substance use.
clubs would not be particularly useful. Instead, more
Clubbers are there f o re an easily identifiable group for
r i g o rous searching policies should be adopted and
t a rgeted initiatives. It is likely that stopping people taking
e n f o rced. The police could assist club managers in devising
d rugs in the first place would be ineffective with this gro u p .
an appropriate search policy. Door staff would need to be
R a t h e r, they are more likely to be receptive to practical
fully trained in the pro c e d u res for searches and for dealing
i n f o rmation focusing on safe use/harm reduction and on the
with any substances found. All club staff should be aware of
immediate negative effects of drug taking. The in-depth
the potential for drug dealing and be briefed about
i n t e rviews suggested that clubbers actively seek information.
A holistic approach tackling short, medium and long-term
All these measures re q u i re constructive working re l a t i o n s h i p s
health consequences covering the physical, mental and
between local authority licensing units, the police, Dru g
social risks of drug taking could be considere d .
Action Teams (DATs), local drug and alcohol services, club
Dissemination of public health information at clubs could be
owners and managers and event promoters. Only by co-
e ffective – either through leaflets and posters or even thro u g h
operating with one another can effective measures be
an outreach worker on site. However, the key point from the
developed and monitored. The Safer Clubbing Guidance
study is the need for targeted responses to meet the specific
(Home Office, 2002) sets out how this can be achieved.
needs of the audiences who use these diff e rent venues. This
D ATs, which have clubs in their areas, are responsible for
re s e a rch suggests that examination of the venue, music
i m p l e menting this guidance at the local level.
policy and customer base could allow such public healthinitiatives to be designed and targeted eff e c t i v e l y.
The fieldwork for this study took part in January and Febru a ry 2000. Interviewers re c o rded the visible signs ofintoxication displayed by interviewees during the interview and rated each interviewee on an intoxication scale (where 0= no signs and 5 = extremely intoxicated). Using this subjective assessment they classified 90% as at or below level 2and considered that these interviewees were all able to take part in coherent interviews. The study design also included adevelopment phase where problems were anticipated and a protocol was drawn up which outlined all fieldworkp ro c e d u res (see full re p o rt for details).
Collins, M. and Godfre y, J. (1997). A l t e red State: The
O ffice of National Statistics. (1999). Living in Britain:
s t o ry of Ecstasy culture and acid house.
L o n d o n :
results from the 1998 General Household Surv e y.
London: Office of National Statistics.
D o rn, N. and South, N. (1990). ‘Drug Markets and Law
Measham, F., Aldridge, J. and Parker, H. (2001).
E n f o rcement’ British Journal of Criminology, 30 (2):
Dancing on Drugs: risk, health and hedonism in the
British club scene
. London: Free Association Pre s s .
E S PAD. (1999). Alcohol and other drug use among
R a m s e y, M., Baker, P., Goulden, C., Sharp, C. and
students in 26 European countries.
Sondhi, A. (2001). D rug Misuse Declared in 2000:
Council on Alcohol and other dru g s .
results from the British Crime Surv e y.
Home Off i c e
Home Office. (2002). Safer Clubbing Guidance
R e s e a rch Study No. 224. London: Home Off i c e .
For the full re p o rt, see Calculating the risk: re c reational drug use among clubbers in the South East of England
Deehan and Esther Saville (2003). This is an on-line re p o rt and is available on the Home Office RDS website
h t t p : / / w w w. h o m e o ff i c e . g o v. u k / rd s /
Ann Deehan is principle re s e a rcher at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and Esther Saville is a re s e a rch fellow at the
C e n t re for Drug Misuse Research at University of Glasgow.
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