Another week, another needless death on a British dance floor.
Last Saturday, a 19-year-old man died after attending a drum 'n' bass night at The Assembly in Leamington Spa. Headlines in the aftermath focused on the fact that he, and a seriously ill 22-year-old woman, had taken ecstasy – allegedly a pink hexagonal "Red Bull" pill, which have been implicated in many other deaths over the last couple of years.
These tragic stories are now depressingly familiar: a record 92 people died taking MDMA or ecstasy in England and Wales during 2018, with blame normally laid at the feet of the increasingly strong pills that are now roughly double the average of those doing the rounds in the early 1990s.
After the Assembly rave, however, a different narrative emerged, when drugs information site Pill Report UK started publishing angry eyewitness accounts from the event on their Instagram. Attendees complained of overcrowding, searing heat and bar staff refusing to serve tap water to desperate punters. Those conditions can be dangerous as they are, but introduce drug use – famously a common feature of drum 'n' bass nights – and the associated risks skyrocket.
"MDMA interferes with the way the body regulates its temperature and its hydration level," says Guy Jones, Technical Director at Reagents Test UK. "As a stimulant, MDMA encourages people to dance harder and for longer than they might normally, further increasing the core body temperature and making cooling more important. Combining these factors with a hot, crowded venue could become really dangerous, as overheating is one of the major complications when too much MDMA is taken."
Compounding this issue was the bar staff's refusal to serve cold water, which is "a very effective coolant", says Jones – while stressing the importance of not over-hydrating (drugs charity The Loop suggests around a pint an hour if dancing). "The average clubber who has been dancing will benefit from cold water just for keeping internal levels between 'normal for dancing' and 'a bit toasty'."
Although this won't be the last party to put profits before customer comfort, surely the record number of ecstasy-related deaths mean promoters and venues need to start taking more responsibility for their punters' wellbeing?
"We arrived at 11PM and had to queue an hour – people were pushing in everywhere and the security couldn't really care less. Inside, it was immediately clear they had over sold," says Max, 20. "The heat radiating from the crowd was immense. Everyone was packed in like sardines."
I spoke to five attendees, including one staff member, and each echoed these sentiments, adding that door checks were minimal, despite a young crowd. "We didn't get our IDs checked, and we were not even patted down for a security check," said Virgil*, 20. "The temperature in there was just ridiculous," said Maxine*, 20. "I remember being in the crowd for about 15 minutes and feeling as though I was about to pass out. It didn't matter where you were – even at the back there was no air con or anything."
The only respite was the smoking area. "But you had to wait at least ten minutes in another queue just to get out there," said Maxine.
Neither the promoter nor the venue replied to requests for comment, so we can't confirm allegations or shed light on the arrangement between the two parties. Generally, though, in a club ecosystem the promoter will be responsible for getting people into the venue and the owners will take care of everything else, including the bar.
A staff member working on Saturday night told me that, before the event, there was a briefing in which they were explicitly told to not serve tap water to punters: "That would waste time that could be spent serving paying customers," she said. Instead, a jug was put on the bar, which reports have suggested was not refilled nearly enough. "A lot of staff were new that night, and they might not have realised that it was their duty to do that," she added.
This problem worsened when £5 bottles of water ran out and employees seemed unbothered by requests for leniency, instead pointing people towards the toilets, which – due to the venue being so crowded – were blocked off by tediously long queues. "The bar staff weren't at all sympathetic, and laughed at me when I said the water situation was a joke," said Alex*, 18 – an account demonstrated in the video above, taken on Saturday night.
While reports suggest the The Assembly did not properly look after their customers, it would be unfair to make them a pariah, as this kind of thing has been going on for decades.
"Ever since we've had dance drugs, we've had a battle over water. Venues and festivals could all be doing more," says Fiona Measham, Director of The Loop, adding a caveat that Fabric are now the standard-bearers with a dedicated water bar. "Water is a fairly cheap thing to provide, but people don't want it to eat into bar profits."
The Licensing Act states that "free potable water" must be available in premises that serve alcohol. Therefore, in The Assembly's case, managers weren't breaking any rules by insisting people got their water from the toilets. But it's crass and shortsighted management – especially for a night that's stuffed to the gills, unbearably hot and playing 160 to 180BPM music long associated with Class A drugs.
It's for this reason there's been an outpouring of anger and disbelief that an event can be so poorly managed with so little consideration given to punters' wellbeing. "The environment in there that night was not safe at all," confirmed Maxine. Virgil said, "I go to raves very often, and I've never been to one that's so unorganised and looked like so much of a cash grab."
Local police declined to comment, as investigations are ongoing. But as ever, responsibility likely lands at multiple doors: "MDMA's highest ever death rates seem to be tracking the increase of purity, so that's a case of education and information," said Fiona Measham. "But there are also basic levels of health and safety that venues should apply."
She was keen to stress that raving mustn't lose its romance – the slightly fear-tinged thrill that comes from walking into a heaving room where the walls are alive and the cosmos is yours for the next four hours. "You want there to be a sense of the crowd and the excitement – but you can give people thrills without risking their lives."
Thanks to Pill Report UK for their assistance with this article.
*Names have been changed.