What the 1980s Glue Sniffing Epidemic Can Teach Us About Preventing Ecstasy Deaths

If authorities want to cut the amount of drug deaths in the UK, they need to start confronting the problem instead of running away from it.

by Max Daly
01 September 2016, 12:23pm

(Photo: David Hudson)

On Sunday, 17-year-old Lewis Haunch collapsed and died after taking drugs at the Leeds Festival. The previous fortnight, the iconic London club fabric was forced to suspend operations after two as yet unnamed 18-year-old boys died there in the space of nine weeks after taking drugs. In July, two 17-year-olds, Megan Bell and Peter McCallum, died from suspected drug overdoses at the T in the Park festival in Scotland. In June, 17-year-old Emily Lyon died after taking ecstasy at Red Bull Culture Clash at the O2.

People dying after taking drugs such as ecstasy at clubs and music festivals – although rare, considering at the very least 25 million pingers are dropped each year in Britain – is nothing new. And they don't only die at dance events; sometimes they collapse in their bedrooms or at house parties. But because most ecstasy deaths are reported in the media, unlike, say, heroin deaths, it's clear to see that most people are dying quite literally on the dance floor.

There were 50 ecstasy-related deaths in 2014. In 2005 there were 58 deaths and in 2001 there were 55. Since 2001, apart from a temporary fall in deaths between 2009 to 2012, due to the fact ecstasy pills contained so little MDMA, between 43 and 58 people have died each year after taking ecstasy. And some of these are young, inexperienced drug users who, through lack of information, have taken huge overdoses of MDMA, or its more potent doppelganger, PMA.

After each suspected drug death, the venue or event in question must defend itself from accusations they somehow colluded in the tragedy; that they are little more than drugs dens. There are the calls, as has happened with fabric, that they should be shut down for good. As if that would stop teenagers dying from drugs.

Don't expect any help from the government on this one. Certainly in terms of putting their money where their mouth is, its strategy is to leave young drug users – and the venues they dance in – to sink or swim in an ocean of unpredictability. Venues such as fabric try their best, providing water and paramedics, but when it comes to people taking drugs before they enter, or even smuggling them past security and using them inside, there's very little they can do.

A worker from The Loop testing drugs at Secret Garden Party (Photo: Steve Rolles)

Over the last two years there have been huge strides forward made in harm reduction at clubs and festivals. The Loop, a drug testing charity working with the authorities and entertainment industries, has already set up drug testing sites at the Warehouse Project, Secret Garden Party and Kendal Calling. Encouragingly, The Loop's director Fiona Measham says they have "been besieged with requests by police and venues" to expand their testing programme. Yet, despite this movement for change, the problem remains that most clubs and festivals still fear that making too much of a fuss over illegal drug taking on their premises could lead to unwanted attention from police and the licensing authorities. Moreover, getting in the drug testers and welfare staff is not cheap.

Oddly, a path out of this deadly rut may be found in the midst of the Thatcher era glue-sniffing epidemic.

Between 1983 and 1992, more than 1,000 people – mostly under-18s from areas rife with unemployment and bad housing – died from volatile substance abuse in the UK. These "drugs", such as pots of Evo-Stik and aerosol canisters, were obviously available in every high street. Rather than look at why these kids were getting glued up to their eyeballs in the first place, the government put the onus on the glue making industry to sort it all out. In the Glue Abuse Prevention Bill, the government wanted to force them to make their products stink so bad that no one would want to sniff them. Modern parallels with authorities blaming dance venues and demanding increasingly off-putting door policies are not hard to miss here.

Instead, in 1984, the British Adhesives and Sealants Association, with Barrie Liss, a director of Staffordshire glue manufacturer Evode, established a charity to tackle the problem, warning teenagers about the highly lethal nature of glue sniffing. And it wasn't some half-arsed alcohol industry effort like the Portman Group and Drinkaware. Called Re-Solv, the charity, which still exists today, played a key role in getting the message across, and by the 1990s teenage deaths from glue sniffing had plummeted.

It's a precedent that Harry Shapiro, director of the charity DrugWise, says could offer a way out of the double-bind that venues find themselves in today.

"Deaths of young people from drugs in clubs and at festivals appear to be on the rise again. Venues already have a role in trying to reduce drug problems, but could they do more? Yes. But many feel unable to because of cash and for fear of losing their license by identifying themselves as having a problem," he points out. "As happened in the 1980s with the adhesives industry setting up Re-Solv, I think a similar kind of idea could be explored on the dance drug issue. You could call it the Club and Festival Welfare Association.

"The club and festival industry, and maybe the music industry as well, could commit some funding to roll out drug testing, have more drug welfare workers in venues and at events, underwrite conferences and distribute information. You could have a 'responsible venue' kitemark. The charity's board of trustees could have a couple of sympathetic chief constables, the Local Government Association and venue organisers. At the moment, young people are not able to make informed choices about drugs so something more needs to be done."

It's true, as the venue owners and club promoters say, that drugs are a wider problem of society. But the truth is that if they don't deal with it, they will always be an unfortunate death or two away from being shut down. So I spoke to other drug harm reduction experts to see what they thought of the plan.

Michael Linnell has been plugging the safer drug taking message to generations of drug users since the late 1980s. He was there in the clubs in Manchester during acid house and, while the government sat on its hands, designed a series of Viz style booklets aimed at saving drug users' lives. This summer he was at Kendall Calling, giving harm reduction advice to festival-goers inside The Loop's groundbreaking drug testing tent.

"Obviously an electro dance event is more likely to see people using powerful stimulant drugs than a Morris dancing festival, but no matter what you do, other than banning dancing unless it's around a maypole, there are always going to be drug-related deaths in clubs and festivals, as that's where people go to take drugs – and drugs are, you know, kinda dangerous," says Linnell.

READ: We Went Drug Testing at Secret Garden Party to See What Weird Shit Ends Up in Your Drugs

Whatever happens, he says, the longer the real issues are avoided, the more people will lose their lives. For him, a new charity would need to focus on expanding drug testing across the UK, as well as the expert advice that comes with it. The scheme would also need to have the support of local authorities, police and politicians, who, Linnell points out, must be willing to stand up to allegations of condoning drug use from "hypocritical journalists".

"The question is, are we doing everything we possibly can to reduce the harm and number of deaths that occur? Penalising those clubs and festivals where drugs are more likely to be taken, even if they are doing their upmost to tackle the issue in a realistic way, will simple drive it somewhere else less equipped to deal with it."

Linnell says that while there are already welfare services at festivals and the bigger dance clubs, they rely on volunteers and are not cheap.

Next, I gave Mike Power a call. He's the author of Drugs 2.0 and a campaigner for better harm reduction for drug users. What does he make of this plan? First of all, he says, before anything else happens, it must be acknowledged that drug use is a normal part of everyday life for young people.

"It's not deviant behaviour," he said. "Clubs and festivals have a responsibility to their shareholders on the dance floor to keep them safe and keep them educated. Dance venues and festivals are social hubs whose entire existence is dependent on them. It seems, to me, good sense for them to fund a charity to circulate around the nightclub scene, providing welfare officers and drug testing facilities. We need an industry-wide doubling down on the health and safety of clubbers. So I think a charity like this is an excellent idea."

Power says the biggest value of a charity being able to expand drug testing facilities is not the drug testing itself. "Drug testing doesn't change people's behaviour," he explained. "If you tell them they've got a weak drug, they'll go and buy more; if you tell them it's strong, they'll go and buy more. What testing does is enable drug workers to reach out to people in the clubs and at festivals, and once you have that you have a dialogue with the clubbers. It frames people's behaviour: to be more considered and cautious about the drugs they are taking."

A wrap of MDMA (Photo: Michael Segalov)

Alan Miller, who owned the Vibe Bar in Brick Lane before shutting it down in 2014 due to intense regulation, is now chairman of the Night Time Industries Association. He believes that police have too much of an influence over how bars and clubs tackle drugs and that venues that shy away from bringing in strict controls such as sniffer dogs and ID scanning are given a rough ride by the law. He also liked a plan along DrugWise lines.

"I think we should have drug testing booths in city centres and local areas during the early evening," he said. "Having an industry-wide sponsored scheme from festivals, clubs, bars and others to prevent harm and underwrite a charity to visit venues, events and festivals to help prevent fatalities is a smart move."

In 1996, Dance Till Dawn Safely, the first official safer clubbing guidelines for club owners, was published by the London Drug Policy Forum. Since then, 670 people, most of whom never reached their 30th birthday, have died in England and Wales after taking ecstasy.

If club owners, festival organisers, police, local authorities and politicians want this to continue for another 20 years, my advice is do nothing, ignore what's been said in this article and keep things exactly as they are.


More on VICE:

British Police Officers Reveal What They Really Think About the War on Drugs

I Use LSD to Help Me Deal with the Trauma of Being Kidnapped by My Dad

How the Psychoactive Substances Act Has Affected the UK's Drug Landscape

Max Daly
harm prevention
Mike Power
drug deaths