On 7 February 2014, emergency services treated over 100 young people outside a music concert in Belfast. The performer was Hardwell, a Dutch dance music producer and DJ. Small quantities of drugs were seized, Hardwell’s subsequent gig in Edinburgh was cancelled, and the situation was declared a “major incident” by the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS).
Families across the country, in particular those who had children or family at the event, scrambled for more information as panic swept the nation.
Many of the young people were unconscious and in a life threatening state, as ambulances and police cars surrounded the venue. The whole thing, visually, was striking and reminiscent of what you would expect to see at the scene of some sort of major attack, not a music concert.
This event was one of many that helped shape the public perception surrounding both the clubbing scene in Northern Ireland and illicit, dance music associated drugs such as ecstasy and MDMA.
There was public uproar and mass hysteria, the type that previously surrounded breakthrough forms of music such as punk rock and heavy metal.
But just how warranted is it? Does Northern Ireland really have a problem with illicit drugs in club culture? How do the facts stack up? And what can be done to improve the image of the clubbing scene and, in particular, dance music?
Numbers don’t lie – an assessment of the problem
Firstly, let’s look at the facts. The Department of Health’s 2014/15 Drug Prevalence Survey reports that around 27% of respondents had admitted to using illegal drugs at some point in their lifetime. However, across all of the responses, cannabis was by far and away the most widely used drug.
Contrastingly, 61% of respondents, over three fifths, reported drinking alcohol in the past month, with a fifth of adults admitting that they should cut down. So, from the offset, alcohol appears to be much more widely used than illicit drugs – and the majority of those illicit drug uses are concerning cannabis, a drug that isn’t widely considered to be dangerous.
A very telling statistic is the fact that 13% of respondents said that alcohol had caused them to have relationship or family problems as a result of their usage, while it was only 5% for drugs.
So, statistically, “clubbing drugs” such as MDMA and Ecstasy are grossly underrepresented, while alcohol is very highly represented and leads to many more problems concerning quality of life than any of the illegal drugs do.
The NI Drugs Misuse Database from 2015/16 provides some clarity on these statistics: of those who reported to healthcare professionals for drug misuse, Cannabis was most represented (66%), with Cocaine coming in second (35%), and Ecstasy only accounting for 10%.
So, even when only illegal drugs are considered and not alcohol, traditional clubbing drugs like Cocaine and Ecstasy are still not as highly represented as you might expect.
Research conducted by St. George’s University of London showed that, surprisingly, the top five drug killers in Northern Ireland were all legal drugs, not illegal. So why isn’t there a perception surrounding painkillers, or a crackdown in policy surrounding such drugs?
An inside opinion
It appears that the numbers and the facts don’t match the stigma.
I went to get the perspective of someone who’s in at the heart of the Northern Irish electronic music scene, Belfast-based producer Jamie Lowry, notable for his chiptune alias Casion and his bass music duo Anchorite.
I asked him what he thought about dance music’s long term association with illicit drugs and overindulgence:
“I can understand the association,” remarked Jamie.
“Drug use and dance music culture have been tied up together for a long time.
“However, a lot of music and art culture can be linked and is linked to drug use.”
When asked about what kind of people are attracted to the clubbing lifestyle, Jamie stated that, “Perhaps it’s that the kind of people drawn to those kinds of scenes are more likely to experiment with illicit substances.
Who knows? It’s very hard to make any kind of definitive statement,” and proceeded to give some advice for club goers:
“I think it’s fair to say that drug use is common at some dance music events but I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing as long as people are careful, safe and well informed.”
Eventually, the conversation turned to drug laws and the current policing regarding them. I asked Jamie what he thought on this front.
“I absolutely think that drugs should be policed differently. I think education and regulation should be the strategy adopted, as opposed to just locking people up because they’ve made a mistake,” Jamie stated.
“Too many lives are ruined for something that doesn’t harm anybody else, and I think it would be safer for society and safer for the individuals using them if drugs were handled in a more calm manner.”
I finished by asking him on his thoughts about “club culture” and the fear that many members of the public have concerning it. “I actually don’t think the majority of the public fear ‘club culture’, “Most people these days have experience either going out to bars or nightclubs of some description,” he went on to say.
“I think, however, there certainly is an element of hysteria concerning drug usage, and there has been for a long time. When you look at alcohol, and you see how much worse it is in terms of deaths and damage caused to society, it’s quite easy to be dismissive of the fear mongering.”
A rapper’s perspective
Another Belfast-based artist, Jasper Waddell aka “Mafya” was keen to share his views and opinion on Northern Ireland’s clubbing scene.
“To a certain extent there is a real association between clubs and drugs, but i think it varies quite a bit. Clubbing as an umbrella term probably means a lot of things to a lot of different people,
“I think a lot of it depends on where you go and who you are with. The nightlife scene is always going to attract drug users.”
Similarly to Jamie, Jasper considers it a matter of fact that drugs and clubs go hand in hand. In terms of how this affects his gigs and live shows, Jasper made it clear that, “Most of the time, whether it’s a bit of cannabis or pills, some people need it to enjoy themselves,
“Sometimes its refreshing to do different events and do different things where the crowd is more sober.”
When questioned about the dangers of certain club drugs, Jasper was very clear.
“What saddens me though is seeing young people, and kids around sixteen, taking pills,
“They are dangerous. Coming from someone who knows, they are fun but you are playing with your life.”
“At 16 your brain hasn’t developed. How can you focus on your studies, and becoming a normal young adult, if you’re always getting wiped out?”
Jasper’s words are important for any young person to consider, and perhaps if the young party-goers in Belfast in 2014 had heard the same advice they wouldn’t have gone so far. On policing, Jasper believes that the police do perhaps need to be addressed differently.
“They (drugs) are over-policed to a certain extent.
Belfast, however, isn’t too strict, and there are far worse crimes to be doing to be honest. There’s a lot more that the police could spend their time doing,”
The topic then came up of hysteria surrounding club and dance culture, and I asked Jasper for his view of whether or not this fear is warranted.
thousands of people die from alcohol abuse each year.”
“It’s similar to a plane crash, more people die in car crashes every year but because plane crashes only happen rarely and are much scarier, people tend to be more afraid of planes.”
The bottom line
It becomes clear from assessing both the perspectives of these two figures within the scene, and from analyzing the statistics, that the fear and concern surrounding Northern Ireland’s bustling club and dance culture is very overblown.
“If you are going to take substances which are harmful you should know the right amount, the safe way to take them, and when to get help”
Alcohol and many other legal drugs kill and damage far more people than the illicit drugs which the public fears. Drugs, while indeed dangerous in the wrong hands, are not the sole problem, and the scene isn’t ready to give them up any time soon.
(Below you will find audio including the opinions and perspectives of several students on this issue, many of whom have had real life experiences involving pills. It’s clear from those I interviewed that the current regime of policing drugs is not working in the eyes of young people, and that greater education is needed.)