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07th Sep 2016

Closing Fabric won’t solve the UK’s drug problems, but legalisation could

Prohibition has failed. It's time for a new conversation.

Rich Cooper

One of Britain’s biggest and best-known nightclubs has been forced to close forever in the name of drug safety.

Fabric had been temporarily closed in August following the drug-related deaths of two teenagers, but on the evening of Tuesday 6th September, Islington Council decided to shut the London club permanently, citing police fears that the club’s “culture of drugs” would continue unabated and that more people could die as a result.

News of the club’s closure was met with an outpouring of sadness and fury. Fabric is the next in a long line of clubs to close in recent times; nearly half of the UK’s clubs have shut over the last 10 years. Many feel that Fabric was made a scapegoat for Britain’s drug problems, and they’re right. “Closing Fabric is not the answer to the drug-related problems clubs like ours are working to prevent,” the club said in a statement, and they’re right. Islington MP Emily Thornberry said that “we must guard against the assumption that dangerous drug use would cease simply if we were to close a nightclub like Fabric,” and she’s right.


No one is denying that Britain has issues with substance abuse, but anyone who thinks that the prohibition of drugs and criminalisation of users is solving the problem are themselves in denial. The global War on Drugs has been a spectacular failure, achieving only death and dollars spent; domestically we waste taxpayer’s money on imprisoning people who don’t need it instead of facing up to the reality that it is possible to take recreational drugs and be a good person at the same time. It’s time for a different conversation.

First, it’s important to clarify the terms used in this conversation, particularly “decriminalisation” and “legalisation”, which are not the same thing. Some countries like Portugal, Spain and Italy have taken steps to decriminalise drugs, with broadly positive results, but decriminalisation means that possessing a small amount of drugs for personal use is not a criminal offence – it does not mean that you are free to buy and sell drugs as you please.

“Legalisation” is a more problematic term that gets Britain’s moral arbiters up in arms. When they hear “legalised drugs”, they envision an orgiastic free-for-all, with junkies shooting up on street corners and toddlers smoking pot in nursery. What legalisation really means is legalised regulation, i.e. the government either having direct control of or legislative power over the manufacture and distribution of drugs, similar to the production and sale of tobacco and alcohol.

This is the starting point from which real progress could be made. We talk about “controlled substances”, but while drugs are illegal, they’re completely outside of the government’s control. All the power lies in the hands of illegal drug manufacturers and dealers, power that we have handed to them through prohibition. The best the government can do is try to tackle the problem externally, through punitive and preventive measures, but as anyone with a working knowledge of modern Britain knows, this is like using a wine cork to plug the English Channel.


Photo: DEA

The drug trade answers to a higher power, much higher than police and politicians: supply and demand. As long as people want drugs, people will get drugs, and a lot of people want drugs. The drugs they are getting, however, are of variable quality and consistency, which is where some of the danger lies. Conventional wisdom says that you should never buy drugs from someone you don’t know and trust, but every time you buy you have only the dealer’s word that you’re getting what you paid for.

Under legalisation, the manufacture of drugs could be tightly regulated, as tightly as the production of alcohol, cheese, Coca-Cola, washing-up liquid, or any other product whose safety we never question. Drugs could be clearly labelled, explaining what they’re made of and how strong they are, another key area of danger for users. Ill-information is one of the biggest killers when it comes to drugs; people taking substances that were stronger than they thought or not what they thought at all. If users are confident in what they’re taking, they can make better-informed decisions about their behaviour and the behaviour of their friends.

In addition to controlling the manufacture of drugs, bringing the sale of drugs into the hands of legally authorised bodies would change drug culture for the better. There is no contract of sale between the dealer and the customer, and the dealer has no responsibility to protect the customer. If legalised, the government would require vendors to get a licence to sell drugs and make special provisions regarding who they can sell to and how much they can sell.



Photo: epSos

At present, anyone can go up to a dealer and buy drugs; legalisation could change all that. The repercussions for selling alcohol and tobacco to minors is incredibly severe, and would be even more severe for drugs. Specific drugs could be made available only from specific vendors, who could be given discretionary powers as to who is fit to buy them. Hard drug users like heroin addicts could be made to register as users and take their drugs under medical supervision, while undergoing treatment for their addiction.

In the case of Fabric, the police’s concern was that people were openly buying, selling and taking drugs without repute. If Fabric had a licence to sell drugs, it could have eliminated the open black market on the dance floor, while properly and legally shouldering responsibility for its patrons. Fabric could have ensured its customers were taking good quality drugs and better prevented anyone who had already taken too much from getting any more, as well as taking direct action against anyone trying to contravene these rules.

This is nothing to say of the massive amounts of money disappearing into the illegal drug trade. In 2014, a UN report estimated that the global drug trade is worth $435 billion a year, and almost every penny of that money goes straight into the hands of criminals. By legalising drugs, the illegal drugs market would essentially be eliminated and a high-value product brought into taxation, the money from which could be used to fund rehabilitation and preventive education programmes, or help cover the health costs of drug usage.


Photo: m.a.r.c.

There are legitimate concerns around legalisation, and it is not a silver bullet, for there are no silver bullets. The alcohol and tobacco industries thrive on addiction, having harnessed the ultimate form of brand loyalty, and fears that legalising drugs would result in the creation of new addicts are well-founded, which is why suddenly legalising all drugs would be foolhardy. It has to come as part of a wider, government-backed cultural change.

Legalisation alone cannot solve the UK’s drugs problems. Instead, the UK needs to grow up, stop pretending that drug users are a degenerate minority and accept that it is Britain, not its nightclubs, that has a culture of drugs. Better education, grounded in reality rather than held at arms length, in tandem with sensible and tightly-controlled legalisation reforms have a significantly better chance of tackling drugs in Britain than demonising and persecuting young people and nightclubs.

Fabric may have had a problem, but closing the club only moves the problem elsewhere, into bedrooms and onto street corners. Drugs aren’t going anywhere for now, but to deal with them effectively the government must first accept the responsibility of doing so instead of passing the buck onto places like Fabric.

Feature image: Fabric

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