There exists a current and historical practice of queer people using drugs in nightlife spaces in the United Kingdom. During the 1970s and 1980s, queer people, particularly gay men and trans women, were integral in shaping a culture of nightlife in London. And legislation like the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which aims to decrease the supply of drugs, has not stopped queer people from going out and taking drugs, it just pushes queer drug-taking nightlife further underground. In this post, I describe a recent event, the Nightlife Harm Reduction Summit, in efforts to capture a bit of the experience of queer drug taking in nightlife today.
The Harm Reduction Nightlife Summit was hosted in May 2023 by a collaboration between The Love Tank, a not-for-profit working to improve the health and wellbeing of underserved communities, and Safe Only Ltd, a queer/trans-led organization providing welfare, security and harm reduction services to nightlife settings. The event website says, “Drugs are present in nightlife. Zero tolerance policies are unrealistic, undesirable, and push drug taking into risky corners.” It was an open invitation to anyone involved in nightlife– from DJs to occasional attendees – to explore existing and potential possibilities to replace punitive responses to drug use with harm reduction in a way that is non-judgemental, dignified, evidence-based and supportive of health and fun. I was given permission to attend the summit in my capacity as a Contributing Editor for Points, but also as a nightlife event attendee myself.
The Harm Reduction Nightlife Summit was the first event of its kind to bring together such a diverse array of nightlife-involved people in London to discuss an evidence-based alternative to punitive responses to drug use in nightlife spaces.
Many people arrived early to see the facilitator, Dani Singer, who is a part of Safe Only Ltd. I was meeting Dani for the first time, but it was extremely obvious that they are very loved by people in the London nightlife scene. As an aside, on top of the immense amount of evidence to support harm reduction, the people who embody this philosophy of keeping people safe above all else are incredibly caring, which makes my job as a harm reduction researcher and journalist great. Dani was busy setting up, but if her hands were free when people walked in, she was there to offer a hug and nearly everyone accepted.
I was extremely excited about the event, but it was even more thrilling to see that everyone else was too. The energy was vibrant. In my notes from the event, I see that I have written, “Ppl very chatty & joyful. It feels like this space was needed.” I immediately felt a strong sense of community, even though I did not know most of the people there. After the event started, more people arrived and the chairs filled up. At some point, we ran out of chairs and people started to stand at the back and sit on the ground.
We started the conversation by hearing from people about their own experiences of taking drugs or those that they had seen in others. A theme emerged quickly: people taking drugs in nightlife spaces are being harmed by overlapping stigma and criminalization.
Stigma can lead to people not feeling comfortable sharing information with people, even their friends, about the drugs that they are taking. This can lead to a lot of fear for someone who is witnessing their friend having a hard time while taking a drug and does not have any information about what they have taken. It can also lead to difficulty in responding to a drug-related harm if the consumed substance is unknown.
The regulations from the Licensing Act 2003, are a major contributing factor to increasing the risk of drug-related harms. In practice, the Act prevents nightlife spaces from including harm reduction offerings for fear of being shut down.
In response to this Act, or sometimes only in fear of it, individual nightlife spaces have unique policies around drug use, which ultimately hold the potential to produce breeding grounds for drug-related harms. For example, deterrents to entry like sniffer dogs or bag checks mean that people might take all of their drugs before entering the venue in efforts not to get caught with drugs. This is directly in conflict with the harm reduction aphorism, “start low, go slow” which can avoid harm from large or adulterated doses of drugs. Some venues have zero tolerance policies on drug use and expect welfare workers at the event to report any suspected case of drug use, which can prevent people from seeking help if they need it. Stigma and also the fear of getting in trouble can lead people to use drugs in secluded places without anyone able to help if anything goes wrong.
These policies do not only harm the person using drugs. We also heard from people who work in nightlife, such as DJs, welfare workers, promotors, security staff, etc.., about how these policies impact them.
We talked about fear from event organizers that their event will get shut down if people find out that anyone is using drugs at their event. Event organizers who have intersecting marginalized identities may also face an elevated risk of criminalization; if they are hosting a space that feels unique and important, it may detrimentally impact their community if it is shut down. Event organizers and owners who support harm reduction, who were the majority of the people at the event, face difficult decisions as a result of the policies and regulations..
Nightlife workers, including welfare workers, are also faced with conflicting pressures. They may be pressured by the event organizers not to call the ambulance because of fear of getting the event shut down, while also facing a potential medical emergency. They can also be caught between being mandated to share information if they know that someone is using drugs while also knowing that reporting the person could be harmful to them. And they may be concerned about losing their jobs, especially if events lose their licenses. Many nightlife workers are expected to be able to respond to emergencies for a low wage and are provided nothing to address potential trauma from these situations.
There was a sense of discouragement around these regulations and policies, and also some hope in the idea that if we cannot change the policies right now, maybe we can find ways to keep each other safe and share information with our friends and networks in the meantime. Maybe we could do this by breaking down stigma around drugs and being kind to strangers; someone shared a story about their joy when they were having a very intense experience on drugs and a stranger offered to sit down and chat with them somewhere calm while the bartender held their drink. There was also talk of education and various people at the event discussed potential collaborations to share drug harm reduction information with attendees.
It felt like we came together to this event because we love each other so fiercely, and we wanted to do right by each other in light of the harms that people are witnessing. This event also felt monumental because it was the first of its kind, and hopefully the first of many, where we could start collaborating on ways that we could keep each other safe in the UK nightlife scene. We talked about many potential ideas. To list just a few: building worker power by unionizing nightlife workers and building power among queer people who use drugs to change regulatory policies for nightlife, building more intergenerational spaces, and collaborations between charities and artists and nightlife workers.
None of the solutions offered were to stop using drugs. Queer people have always explored and tested the limits of what is considered to be ‘normal’. Whether it is our clothing, our relationship styles, or the drugs, we will always explore. Harm reduction was built on the backs of people of color, queer, trans, sex worker, and disabled activists as a liberatory practice to keep each other safe as we explore. The queer nightlife community in London will continue to find ways, both inside and outside of formal systems, to use harm reduction and keep each other safe when using drugs.
I would like to thank Benjamin Weil and Dani Singer for including me in this event, supporting my coverage of it, and offering feedback on the piece.
Feature image shared with the permission of photographer Medkes.