For college students in Britain, where the culture of electronic music is deeply embedded in the university experience, fear of corrupt drug policing extends beyond the police to the bouncers and the private security firms employed by nightclubs.
In Newcastle—England’s “drug death capital”—bouncers exploiting punitive drug laws to harass and blackmail students is part of everyday life. One Newcastle medical student, Noah*, said that after a friend dropped their bag of MDMA on a nightclub floor two bouncers descended, flashlights shining into their faces, within seconds.
“It was like they were waiting for it to happen,” Noah told Filter. “They’re quite big guys, so they corner us into a booth and ask, ‘Show us your hands.’”
“At the time, we were like, ‘Yeah, ok, take whatever money you want.’”
The bouncers ordered Noah and his friend to empty their pockets and place their IDs on the booth table, exposing them as medical students—something Noah believes encouraged the bouncers’ haste to blackmail them.
“They said, ‘You know what happens if you get caught.’ They were using scare tactics. Straight away they insinuated that we had to pay them off,” Noah continued. “At the time, we were like, ‘Yeah, ok, take whatever money you want.’”
After the students turned over all the money in their wallets—the equivalent of around $30—the bouncers gave them back their drugs and allowed them to rejoin the crowd.
Criminalization Sets the Stage
As Oregon becomes the first US state to decriminalize the possession of so-called “hard drugs” for personal use—a strategy that’s seen success in Europe—the UK has yet to make such a progressive leap, despite the recent legalization of prescribed cannabis products. The threat of arrest for drug possession has allowed exploitation to become routine in British nightlife.
Liam, a student visiting Newcastle from Cambridge, described being caught in a bathroom stall with a bag of ketamine by a bouncer who had been waiting covertly in the stall next to him.
The bouncer asked him to withdraw the equivalent of nearly $50 from a nearby ATM in exchange for the return of his drugs. Liam refused. The bouncer kept his drugs. “The guy was so calm about it,” Liam said. “It was obviously a transaction he had executed before.”
According to Dr. Russell Newcombe, a pioneer of harm reduction and one of few academics to study the British rave scene, these are symptoms of a system of organized crime known as “taxing.” When conducting research into the ’90s Liverpool-area scene, Newcombe found that “almost all the Merseyside nightclub bouncers were part of criminal gangs.”
“The head bouncers would make dealers in the club pay them a fee or percentage of their takings, for unofficial licensing,” Newcombe told Filter.
“The guy was so calm about it. It was obviously a transaction he had executed before.”
This “licensing” could mean several different things: protection from getting bounced from the club; tip-offs about the presence of undercover cops; and/or a guarantee that the competition—meaning “unlicensed” drug sellers—would be bounced.
“The typical scenario was corrupt, highly changeable and dangerous to get close to,” Newcombe said.
In the clubs where this corrupt ecosystem unfolds, often bouncers put just 10 percent of the night’s confiscated drugs in the club “sin bin.” This is generally enough to show police the bouncers are doing the jobs, while leaving the remainder available for sale to through “licensed” sellers at the next event.
Bouncers frequently become violent with those they find in possession of drugs. Another student, Henry, recalled bouncers searching his wallet and then subjecting him to excessive force after they saw him attempt to hide ketamine in his pocket.
“It was clear they felt I had crossed them,” Henry said. “At first I was held against the wall, and I was trying to wiggle out so then they pushed me to the floor. One of them was on my legs while the other was in my face.”
“And I asked, ‘Can you please let me go?’ And he just kept going. The bruises were testament to how much force was unnecessarily used.”
Private Security Firms
Some clubs directly profit off of criminalization, subsidizing their operations by selling confiscated drugs. “In the dodgier places [door staff] take your drugs and your money off you and blackmail you, absolutely. It’s bloody terrible,” Bart Easter, general manager at Rock City in Nottingham, told Filter. “The manager, whoever, someone is making money from it.”
Those sorts of arrangements by club staff in smaller venues, hosting events for crowds of a few hundred people, aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, Easter said. But for larger, more established clubs like Rock City—which regularly sees crowds of 3,000 people—it’s more likely that private security firms are the ones behind the routine extortion of students.
Easter said that a former Rock City head of security was incarcerated a few years ago for instructing staff to confiscate drugs that were then sold by people he invited into the club. Since then, according to Easter, Rock City has implemented undercover operations and one-to-one staff reviews to avoid that happening again.
“Decriminalizing would stop ruining the lives of young people who get caught with drugs.”
In the UK, there’s a strong connection between security firms and organized crime groups. “They all run security firms and they all say that’s their legitimate business and they’ve left all that ‘other stuff’ behind,” Neil Woods, chairman of LEAP UK and a former undercover narcotics cop who now advocates against the drug war, told Filter. “Which is nonsense, of course … it’s all just the expansion of organized crime.”
Decriminalizing or legalizing drugs would undoubtedly cut down on this kind of exploitation—you can’t really blackmail someone in the same way if what they’re doing is not a criminal offense. Though Woods emphasized the need for a regulated market, he believes there are many smaller productive steps that could be taken in the meantime.
He cited certain UK police commissions that have implemented more progressive drug policies. The Chief Constable of Durham, Mike Barton, advocated a move away from arresting people in possession of drugs for personal use. And the city of Birmingham has introduced a decriminalized zone with drug testing facilities.
“Decriminalizing just the possession of an illicit substance would reduce the stigma,” Woods said. “It would also stop ruining the lives of young people who get caught with drugs.”
*All students’ names have been changed to protect their privacy
Photograph via Pixy