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Articles - Treatment
Written by Ciaran O'Hagan   
Sunday, 17 December 1995 00:00

Drug Services and legal boundaries

Ciaran O’Hagan

Formerly worked with Release, 388 Old Street, London, EC1U 9LT, UK.

Currently works for South Bank University. Phone no: (Mobile) 0956 450 267

E-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

History of Release

Release started in 1967 because people were getting arrested for drug use. There was a backlash from the alternative youth movement who wanted to do something about it. The organisation Release in the UK has traditionally been on the boundaries of the law for many, many years. Caroline Coon, the founder of Release, decided to get together all of her friends who were studying law at the time and said, "Why don’t we use my phone number at my house and get people to ring us if they get arrested?" And so her phone number was given out at parties, squat parties, and all types of events in the seventies.

A lot of the funding came from people like the Beatles to get things going. In the early days a lot of Release’s work consisted of giving out drugs advice and information in ‘trip tents’ at the psychedelic ‘all-nighters’ at the Isle of Wight festival or other big events throughout the 1970s. Release would go along, the crew would move the whole office (usually in a borrowed van!) and go to a psychedelic all-nighter or festival and set up either a trip room or a trip tent featuring the Release name. In there, people would be given a ‘talkdown’, a bit of space to chill out. That is really the birth of modern dance outreach; it stemmed from those early times.


The free party movement

‘Festival Welfare’ took on that outreach work in the late 1970s and 1980s and then Release came back to work within the modern club scene after people like Lifeline in Manchester had really spurred things on. With regards to illegal activities, the first kind of illegal unlicensed events in Britain were the 1960s ‘shebeens’ which were pay parties in dodgy little dens in Soho. There, people could pay a small amount of money to stay all night drinking and smoking marijuana. Around the same time, there were unlicensed events within the Afro-Caribbean community who used to hold ‘rent parties’ or ‘blues’. When rent was short you would clear one room, have a party and take some money on the door. It would help with the rent for that month. There was also the punk movement in the 1970s which was about DIY style: a "let’s just do it" culture. These boys and girls did not need licences and they would take over squats and have parties. There was also the free festival community, which in Britain has rituals and rights that go back to pagan and Druid days. So in many respects partying in Britain could be traced much, much further back, if you look at the rituals of parties that we have had throughout the centuries. The free party scene in the UK was fairly crushed out on that magical day, the ‘battle of the Beanfield’ which culminated in 1984 at Stonehenge when police said "enough is enough" and there was a big riot. That pushed the free party scene into hiding for quite a few years.


Modern dance scene

Then in to the late 1980s we had the rare groove movement. This was soul, acid, jazz and funk, and parties were put on especially in places like London, Birmingham and other places with high Afro-Caribbean communities. There were already people within the UK who had knowledge about putting on parties and all that information was slowly passed down to different communities and they would service the needs of their community by facilitating fun. This moved on from the early rare groove parties to ‘acid house’. Judge Jules, a famous DJ in Britain, used to be a rare groove promoter. He went to New York, heard the music over there at the Paradise Garage nightclub, then came back and started to play acid house. This happened at the same time as DJs like Danny Rampling, Paul Oakenfold, Nicky Holloway etc were coming back from Ibiza and holding parties to rekindle their holiday experiences, all resulting in the start of the ‘acid house’ phenomena.

There have been stages when the illegal scenes have been very vibrant and then they have been pushed out. A classic example is the acid house movement, but then the police decided to introduce laws to wipe out the scene. However, instead of pushing the scene away, this legislation started to move the scene into clubs. It culminated with the Castle Morton event in 1994 and the introduction of the Criminal Justice Act. Big Acts may well have wiped out the illegal or unlicensed events but in fact all they did was push the culture straight into clubs.

Once the scene is in clubs, it has a legitimate legal basis and it is very hard for it to get out. If we are thinking of a global situation, we also have to recognise the implications of law enforcement. In 1994 the illegal scene started in France, the reason being that the ‘Spiral Tribe’ movement could not put the parties on in England, so they moved across to Europe. It is important to recognise how any policy enforcement will affect your country and others around it because it will just move things around.


Service implications

What are the implications of working at illegal events? The first thing to talk about is funding restrictions. One of the main things that professionals who work at dance events say is that if they are funded by the local authority, they cannot work at unlicensed events, and would therefore prefer to go down to a nice, safe legal event so that their founders will give them the thumbs up. That is quite outrageous. If health provision were given out purely on the grounds that it has to be done in legitimate areas, we would be in an awful state today. Many people throughout the drug field have moved into the illegal scenes and have done some excellent work and that applies to the dance community as well. Just because something has not got a licence to it does not mean that drug workers should not be in there giving out advice and information.

In terms of risks, there are probably more at unlicensed events because of the length of time people are in there; the lack of security; the emphasis may be on taking more drugs; and also the implications of marginalised groups being there, not having the money to go into clubs and not having access to services. Sometimes we have to go to illegal festivals, of which there are many in Britain. We work usually with the Exodus collective who put on a three-day festival which was attended in 1999 by about 10,000 people over three days. We went to J18, a street carnival, (which ended up as a riot) to give out drugs advice and information. So you have to take quite a few risks in providing services. This really is about accessing groups and, in the tradition of anthropology, when people went into small cultures they had to take on certain rituals to be accepted among the group. This is a classic example - you may have to smoke a peace pipe with some party organisers that you are working with. Therefore working on the illegal scene, there are certain things which one may have to do to gain access and trust that may not be transported to the legitimate scene, and this requires individual choice as a professional whether or not you are comfortable with your actions.

E testing can be done at unlicensed events, as there are no legal restrictions. Ecstasy testing in Britain is small scale with the Marquis Reagent and E-Z test, and it draws people into services. We will talk to them about the protocols of testing pills: that they have to keep the drug on them; if it is passed to us they are dealing; and if we pass it back to them it is dealing. It is a good way to pass on information. We definitely need a system like they have in Holland and other countries but working on the unlicensed scene there is a bit more flexibility to do what is seen as radical provision of services within the UK. Release is not the only one who pill test; Crew 2000 test, as do smaller services right across the country. Therefore it is growing but some type of national involvement is really needed.


Health and safety

People are more likely to be taking more drugs at illegal events and this has implications for the people working there, the information available and the needs of the people. Working with an almost excluded group, a lot of issues arise to do with welfare. In France at unlicensed events they have a lot of problems with people who have just run away and this is mirrored in the UK. At unlicensed events and squat parties, there are people who do not present themselves to services and will bring forward a whole range of other welfare issues that you may not be able to cope with as a normal drug worker. Therefore it is important to have other welfare advisors, housing officers, social security advisors who link into the team and who go out with you. There is a wide range of drugs that are used - ketamine especially in the free party scene is used a lot as is heroin, which means that services have to provide needle exchange when they go out. There are also other health and safety issues surrounding drug use.


Good practice

Exodus are a collective of about one hundred people who regularly put on unlicensed events in Luton. They have about 2000 to 3000 young people in the local area who usually follow them in a convoy to the party’s destination. They will take over a quarry or a warehouse that they have assessed a week before and they will put on an event. Release have trained about 90% of their collective, and they have health and safety stewards with signs on them saying ‘peace’ and ‘safety’ steward. They take care when they are putting on events. They look at local residents, how far away houses are and they look at whether or not there is adequate access, good ventilation and free water available. Just because something is unlicensed it does not mean that there is not a lot of thought and care put into it, and it is essential that drug services start linking into those groups and providing radical services.


Our valuable member Ciaran O'Hagan has been with us since Sunday, 19 December 2010.

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