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Criminalisation Of Recreational Drug Use In Britain

Updated: Feb 4, 2023

Madame Koo, Florita's and House of Smith on Collingwood Street in Newcastle (Image: Newcastle Chronicle)

In keeping with the broader theme of neoliberal city governance, and its focus on ‘individualization and responsibilization’ (Raymen, 2015: 501), this article will address shifts in public opinion and new moral concerns regarding the use of illicit recreational substances and their prevalence in the British night-time economy. Which will allow for discussion of the Situational Crime Prevention (SCP) strategies utilised by clubs and bars, the difficulties of policing recreational drug use, and the public health aspects of consumption.

A number of scholars have investigated the role of recreational drugs in contemporary club culture (Measham et al., 2001; St John, 2009; Thornton, 1995). Despite their prohibited status and the general view of their ‘essentially problematic’ nature (Coomber et al., 2013: 9), recreational consumption of illegal substances has been pivotal in the development of Britain’s urban night-time economy. There is a general consensus that public perception of these substances operates within a complex moral continuum (Cohen, 1971), with normalised substances, alcohol, tobacco, and cannabis, being viewed as less immoral when compared to other ‘dirtier’ drugs like cocaine, heroin, ketamine, and MDMA. The moral classification of substances among the population is significantly more complex than the UK Government’s scheduling system portrays, though classification primarily hinges upon the public health aspect of drug use or, in other words, the ‘risk’ of a specific substance (Measham et al., 2001). On the ground, situational crime prevention and CPtED (Crime Prevention through Environmental Design) strategies are clear to see. Raymen (2015) offers an example of this moral categorisation in action within urban city management, in the installation of ‘anti-homeless spikes’ and designing of benches and public spaces that seek to prevent young people and those without homes from sleeping or congregating around certain areas of the city centre at night (Raymen, 2015: 502). Raymen’s account of urban city socialisation asserts that for criminological understanding to stratify how social spaces which accommodate criminal activity are cultivated, it is necessary to approach multifaceted nature of crime through analysis of ‘the underlying drives, subjectivists and motivations to commit crime.’ (Raymen, 2015: 498)

For the most part, the focus of public policy is on the pursuit of organised crime in the supply of recreational drugs, with particular media attention placed on the current campaign to target county lines drug rings. As a result, a moral panic surrounding drug trafficking and emerging online forms of drug accessibility in the UK (Taylor & Potter, 2013; Volteface, 2019) has emerged, which has provoked suppression of debate around the ‘normalisation’ (Aldridge et al., 1998) of certain substances - in particular, debate around the impact decriminalising cannabis consumption may have on organised criminal activity. This has led to an inconsistent policing approach throughout British cities, where individuals in one city may receive a mark on their criminal record for illicit consumption-based activity that is practically decriminalised in other cities. A pertinent example of this can be seen in Durham, where in 2015, following orders from the late Durham Police and Crime Commissioner, Ron Hogg, cannabis was effectively decriminalised, accompanied by an increase in public support of council funded consumption rooms for drug addicts. Hogg’s justification for this was modelled on the Scandinavian approach to drug addiction. Despite Durham Constabulary’s suggestion that this approach succeeded in reducing crimes associated with problematic drug use, Hogg’s reorganisation of force’s priorities was met with apprehension in the right-leaning press: “State-funded crack dens: Addicts could soon be injecting heroin at taxpayers’ expense in police-run city centre drug rooms” (Daily Mail, 2013).

This form of media sensationalism, pertaining to stories about illicit drug use has a history within the British press. The archetypal example of which can be explored in the reporting of Leah Betts’ death (1995), this event displayed the political capacity of print media to manufacture moral panics and influence political debate. Stanley Cohen (1972) explores this in the third edition of his seminal work ‘Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers’ (2011), wherein Cohen details the media’s response to the death of Betts, who fell into a coma and died after consuming ecstasy in a London nightclub at the age of 18. Cohen suggests that beyond the obvious tragedy of the story, few reports acknowledged the evidence surrounding her condition. The inquest that followed her death concluded that her death had not in fact been caused by the consumption of ecstasy, but instead her excessive consumption of water, which when combined with MDMA’s potential to reduce the ability to urinate, resulted in Hyponatremia, and swelling of the brain. A clear victim of the government’s insufficient provision of drug education, Betts’ case preceded the Public Entertainments Licenses (Drug Misuse) Act 1997, which provided councils with the power to close down licenses venues if police believed illicit drugs were being consumed ‘at or near’ venues (Collin & Godfrey, 1998: 309). Which displays the manner in which public opinion can be shaped and potentially manipulated by media actors, resulting in changes to public policy.

Subcultural Movements And The Commodification Of Club Culture

Folklore has it that the early proponents of the country’s acid-house rave scene were influenced by an ecstasy fuelled adventure in Ibiza, an island notorious for its commercialised EDM (Electronic Dance Music) scene, where they were able to witness the emerging electronic dance scene, and experience the excess of ‘empathogenic MDMA’ for the first time (Coomber et al., 2013; St John, 2009: 3). Their experience influenced a new wave of British ravers, and what followed was an explosion of subcultural phenomena under the umbrella of acid house. Unlicensed events in abandoned warehouses, factories and rural fields were organised weekly, with dancers fuelled mostly by amphetamines. The rural nature of the scene made it especially difficult to police, effectively enabling it to ‘blossom into a substantial movement’ within British youth culture (Coomber et al., 2013: 53).

The movement was shaped by the socialising effects of new recreational substances and a collective identity offset by the emergence of neoliberal politics and Thatcherism, and despite events operating with limited violence or extraordinary deviance, the amorphous nature of the scene and its embrace of drug consumption and supply resulted in government sanctions progressively dismantling the movement, and by the early 90s, ‘raves were beginning to be subsumed into mainstream culture’ (Coomber et al., 2013: 53), marking the transition to the commercialised club culture of contemporary Britain.

This transition was characterised by an increase in licensed venues marketing popular music-driven club experiences to the masses, and an inflow of private securitisation measures (Hadfield et al., 2015), with a small number of underground clubs gaining licenses in deindustrialised cities. One particularly draconian signifier of the transition came in the form of Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994, which opposed the playing of music ‘containing a succession of repetitive beats’ (Colin & Godfrey, 1997: 222). Akin to the subsuming of punk into popular rock, acid-house raves were co-opted by commercial investment and interest (Collin & Godfrey, 1997; Hesmondhalg, 1998). This transition was welcomed by local governance and police forces, who, along with the public, were growing concerned about the involvement of organised criminal activity within and outside the scene’s subcultural hierarchy (Hesmondhalg, 1998; Thornton, 1998).

Britain’s Culture Of Consumption And Contemporary Frictions

In establishing the subcultural value of recreational substances, and their relationship with the contemporary club culture we see in urban British cities today, this paper looks to assess the way in which criminal activity, or morally deviant behaviour, i.e. drug consumption, operates within the moral continuum that Cohen delineates (Cohen, 1972; Thornton, 1995). This also portrays drug consumption for what it is, a constant in British life, a social issue that supersedes class structure, and one whose fatalities do not discriminate. For city planners and state actors, this type of consumption-driven leisure creates a plethora of issues that diverge from the securitisation issues of the urban shopping mall (Hayward, 2004).

Hayward and Kindynis’s (2013) construction of the ‘crime-consumerism nexus’ provides an ideal framework through which to approach contemporary examples of friction in the urban night-time economy. The new forms of ‘concomitant subjectivity based around desire, individualism, hedonism, and impulsivity’ that are cultivated by Britain’s culture of consumption present urgent public policy conflicts for state actors. These subjectivities, in their impulsive nature, are difficult to regulate, and logistically create an invisible enemy for city planners who wish to avoid the potential negative press of a club shutting down or a clubber dying as a result of drug use. An example of the way in which the night-time economy in a major British city outside of London and Manchester that facilitates the consumption and supply of recreational drugs is Newcastle upon Tyne. Newcastle’s subcultural attachment to licit substances, like alcohol and tobacco, and illicit substances, like cocaine and MDMA, have been documented by sociologist Anoop Nayak (2003), who explores the material negotiations of young men from the area in the face of changing local and global economic times (Nayak, 2003: 7). Nayak approaches the relationship between social groups, recreational substances, and neoliberal environments noting that ‘despite transformations, the participants observed exuded a self-righteous confidence in the face of the economic situation’ (Nayak, 2003: 21). This confidence in the face of bleak economic conditions, Nayak suggested, was due to immovable cultural values and traditions which the city’s working class male population maintained: ‘loyalty to the region through the support of NUFC, and the perseverance of working-class manliness exhibited through drinking, fighting, humour, and alleged sexual prowess’ (Nayak, 2003: 21). This ethnographic account of subcultural resistance to the commercialisation of the urban cityscape presents an interesting comparative opportunity, and a chance to approach the embedded nature of drug consumption and supply in Britain, and the private securitisation conflicts that have surfaced.

In August 2019, nine men were sentenced at Newcastle Crown Court for involvement in serious drugs offences. These men were staff of the city’s notorious ‘Diamond Strip’, working as management, PR, and door staff, and were accused of conspiring to supply cocaine and MDMA through their clubs. Operation Doncaster was launched to investigate increasing evidence of the link between drug use and violence in the city centre (Chronicle, 2018), and saw the clubs receive temporary suspensions over the Christmas period. However, the threats to these ‘high-end’ bars of the removal of their licenses came to nothing, despite clear evidence of the businesses’ staff peddling illicit drugs and taking advantage of their subcultural positions as those ‘in the know’, converting their subcultural capital into economic capital (Thornton, 1995).

The accommodation of recreational drug use in the urban cityscape is amorphous: its presence as a policy approach is too hard to pin down. However, there is clear evidence that, within Britain, consumption of recreational drugs is welcome in certain social spaces. To conclude, the paper will look at the example of underground London club, Phonox, whose downstairs chill-out space with accessible water taps typifies the urban space adapted to the drug user. This, coupled with the club’s online guidelines for their events, which state: ‘Enjoy the party; please avoid using phones or cameras to take photos: our dance floor’s for dancing’ (Phonox, 2019), show a clear desire to facilitate the hedonistic club experience associated with British club culture. Such policy enabled individuals to enjoy their experience, sober or not, without fear of judgement or damage to their social world. This policy approach from the club fits succinctly into the blind-eye approach to club security, which we have previously discussed, prioritises the prevention of violent crime and supply of substances, over the individual consumption of recreational drugs, which contributes to the wider normalisation debate.


In conclusion, the complex interrelationship between crime, consumer culture, and the city, presents a unique challenge for contemporary criminologists. As this paper showed, through its focus on consumption-based leisure activities, and their subcultural relationship with the contemporary club scene, the role of state actors and political representatives in the accommodation of deviant behaviour is blurred, with the city offering a range of normalised consumption-based leisure opportunities, whilst simultaneously stigmatising others.

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