Public Ents Licences (Drug Misuse) Act
We fought the law, and the law won
The Public Entertainments Licences (Drug Misuse) Bill was one of the last pieces of legislation to receive royal assent before the general election. It is now an Act. Better known as the ‘club drugs crackdown Bill’, it will give councils new powers to close down clubs immediately if the police believe there is “a serious problem relating to the supply or use of controlled drugs” on the premises. Convictions will not be required, and the definition of ‘serious’ is open to interpretation.
“Clubbers can get all indignant, but the fact is that drugs are against the law, and the law should be enforceable” says Conservative MP Barry Legg, who piloted the legislation through the last parliament.
“Clubs get self-righteous and say ‘it’s unjust’ to tighten up the law, yet at the same time everyone inside and out of the industry knows clubs and drugs are bedfellows. What I am hoping to do is make this complacency unacceptable.”
House/techno and drugs like Ecstasy are, as Legg states, intimately related. Thus, if the law is applied aggressively, most of the country’s dance venues could be closed. “This is going to make running a club a very risky business,” says Derek Williams, spokesman for the Shake a Legg campaign against the Bill. “Clubs will close, and those that remain will become commercially safer. Club owners will be reluctant to host clubs which attract a drug-using crowd and will therefore concentrate on mainstream, commercial music. In the long term, this will impact on the music industry, which depends upon the club scene for innovation.”
Mass shutdowns are unlikely to happen, however. Although Legg estimates that “a minority of clubs will face closure” under the impact of his “big stick”, his intent was not, he says, “to begin a blitzkrieg on nightlife”. The Act’s impact is likely to be on promoters who have a bad relationship with local councils or police. “If the definition of ‘serious drug use/dealing’ is left to the local police, great variations will occur around the country,” believes Derek Williams. “What is acceptable in one region may mean a lost business in another. It remains a very badly-worded law and is clearly open to abuse.”
The Act’s impact will be insidious and niggling, and have little effect on the phenomenon that inspired it: the widespread acceptance of recreational drugs within youth culture.
The new law is the third piece of legislation specifically targeted at dance culture, and the culmination of almost a decade of Tory attempts to subdue what, on the surface, appears to be an apolitical youth movement whose only ideology is happy-go-lucky hedonism. However, although its Ecstasy-inspired love-thy-neighbour platitudes often sound naive and woolly, dance culture was on a collision course with the establishment from the very beginning. It posed two very specific challenges: firstly, to Britain’s arcane and restrictive licensing laws, which date back to Lloyd George’s Defence of the Realm Act (brought in to curb the drinking of munitions workers during World War One), and secondly to the drug laws which put recreational substances like Ecstasy in the same legal category as addictive, ‘career’ drugs like heroin.
The conflict began during the long, hot summer of 1989, when acid house burst out of inner-city clubs and disrupted the rural calm of the south-east. Outlaw promoters broke in to disused aircraft hangars and occupied fallow fields, bamboozling the police with their mobile-phone mobilisation systems and staging enormous illegal parties; technicolour extravaganzas with lasers, fun fairs and huge stacks of speakers. Tens of thousands of intoxicated ravers chased the thrill around the merry-go-round of the M25, waking up Middle England.
The tabloid press went ‘mental’, to use that ’80s raver’s catchphrase, and moral panic was inevitably followed by legal crackdown. Tory MP Graham Bright introduced the Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Bill, with the intention of scaring off the pirate entrepreneurs by raising the maximum penalty for running unlicensed parties from £2,000 to £20,000 and six months’ imprisonment, and thus quelling the Ecstasy boom. Labour supported it: “The Labour Party believes that tough action must be taken against those people who organise illegal acid house parties,” said Stuart Randall MP. The Bill became law in 1990, and was immediately followed by one of the biggest mass arrests in British history: 836 people detained during an illegal rave in Yorkshire.
Bright’s Act almost achieved its aim, as the focus of the rave scene shifted from derelict warehouses to licensed premises, and at the same time some councils began to grant dance clubs later licences. But ultimately the Act could not halt the spread of drug culture – in fact, by pushing the scene towards the mainstream, it helped bring Ecstasy to a wider community.
Within two years, a new breed of folk devils had taken centre stage. When rural travellers linked up with urban ravers to organise free parties in the wide open spaces of the south-west, battle was joined once more. In May 1992, 25,000 people congregated on Castlemorton Common, Hereford and Worcester, and established an autonomous party state which defied the law for almost a week. The Tory press labelled the techno travellers as dole scroungers, drug abusers and neglectful parents, and soon the Home Office was talking about another crackdown. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill of 1994, the widely-hated CJB, merged anti-rave measures with assaults on hunt saboteurs, travellers and direct-action protesters.
Much of the CJB was inspired by fear of a rebellious, peripatetic underclass which had demonstrated its organisational capabilities and sheer fearlessness during the Poll Tax riot in Trafalgar Square in 1990 and at Castlemorton. For the first time, a style of pop music was legislated against: the ‘repetitive beats’ of house and techno. This made it appear to many as an attack on a generation, and its effect was to create, for the first time, a consciously political vanguard within the dance scene.
Labour’s Tony Blair decided that his party should abstain from voting on the CJB, effectively removing any serious opposition to it within parliament (although some 40 Labour MPs disregarded his dictum and voted against). Blair preferred to concentrate on attempts to amend elements of the legislation, and recalled with delight how Home Secretary Michael Howard’s jaw “dropped about six inches” when he announced his intention. His reasoning was that it would undermine the opportunity for the Conservatives to declare Labour ‘soft on crime’.
Over the past decade, dance culture has been transformed into a huge commercial operation. But one factor prevents its total assimilation into the leisure establishment: it is a culture predicated on the consumption of illegal pharmaceuticals. This was to be the third battleground, as the climate of hysteria following the death of Leah Betts made way for another clampdown.
At the end of last year Barry Legg, flanked by Betts’ parents at a press conference, launched his ‘club drugs crackdown Bill’. Labour supported it – with the exception of maverick MP Paul Flynn, who suggested that “the Bill is framed in the light of the well-intentioned but mistaken views of ten or 20 years ago”. George Howarth, for Labour, stated: “We have been consistently supportive of the government’s approach on this subject.” Only the Liberal Democrats acted to secure a concession making the Bill less harsh on club owners by blocking the clause that threatened venues with closure if drug dealing took place “near” as well as on the premises.
Looking back over the past decade, a pattern emerges, one which cannot help but suggest that these are more than isolated attempts to pacify wanton youth. The Conservatives have been locked in a (losing) battle with a youth culture whose stimulants they abhor. But what would a Labour government hold in store for the ‘chemical generation’?
During the first week of the 1997 election campaign, Tony Blair posed with an Ecstasy capsule for the cameras and announced that he would appoint an American-style ‘Drug Czar’, a high-powered policy co-ordinator to “lead the fight against drugs and help educate young people not to take them”. The bulk of his strategy differed little from recent Conservative policy, which has mixed draconian legislation with the more liberal drugs education and ‘harm reduction’ measures framed in its Tackling Drugs Together document. Blair made no distinction between Ecstasy and heroin. He refused to contemplate another look at the cannabis laws.
Contradictions cross party lines: echoing John Major’s embracing of ‘Cool Britannia’, Labour press officer Atul Hatwal states that “Britain’s innovative and creative club scene is the envy of the world”, while going on to caution: “Drug use is harmful, even in small amounts as the death of Leah Betts shows. Labour is absolutely committed to tackling the problem.” The fact that Britain’s club culture innovations were significantly inspired by Ecstasy appears to have bypassed both parties.
The ‘solution’ that a Labour government would offer is a familiar one: the same futile ‘war on drugs’, inevitably doomed to the same dismal failure. As Paul Flynn, one of the few MPs courageous enough to break the suffocating moral consensus, told parliament recently: “Although ‘no to drugs’ has been the message sent out in this country and America for the past 30 years, the use of illegal drugs has increased in every one of those years. It increased last year and it will increase next year. Is it not time to look at new policies on drugs?”
Thanks to Matthew Collin (now of the `Big Issue’)