Drugs and Dance Music Culture

Drugs and drug use are an integral aspect of electronic dance music culture which has flourished worldwide over the last 25 years. For millions of people across the globe, the consumption of dance music also entails the consumption of psychoactive substances, some legal as with alcohol, some only recently or yet to be criminalised as with ‘novel psychoactive substances’, and some strictly prohibited as with MDMA (Ecstasy, Molly).

International research on drug use prevalence and use patterns and trends consistently identifies dance music club-goers as having the highest rates of any drug use amongst their peers. Drug use patterns and practices (including abstention) have been shown to differ according to regional and demographic variables, dance music genre, and venue/event type. Particular drugs and patterns of drug use are ‘differentially normalised’ across dance music culture scenes, with what is deemed ‘acceptable’ use spatially and temporarily organised. Drug use associated with dance music culture is typically but not always restricted to weekends or other ‘time-out occasions’, with ‘the clubbing holiday’ and dance music festivals recognised as key times/spaces for prolonged use of intoxicants.

As dance music culture has changed over the decades, so to have related drug ‘fashions’. The classic ‘dance drug’ ‘ecstasy’ – the street name for MDMA – remains synonymous with dance music culture, although ‘amphetamine-type substances’ (ATS), depressants, and hallucinogens are also used. Ravers or ‘clubbers’ have broadened their ‘polydrug’ repertoires to include ‘club drugs’ such as ketamine, GHB/GBL and most recently, ‘novel psychoactive substances’. To offer an example of the latter trend, for a brief period in the UK the stimulant mephedrone featured heavily in dance music clubbers’ drug repertoires, only to all but disappear in the wake of its criminalisation in April 2010. Most recently in the UK concerns have arisen around ‘contaminated’ ecstasy pills containing PMA/PMMA which can be dangerous to clubbers’ health, with charities and user group movements being at the forefront of campaigns to keep clubbers safe.

In the meantime, as ecstasy pill purity levels surge and MDMA in powder or crystal form (‘MD’ or in the US, ‘Mandy’) is once again perceived as “cool” by some young adults, the ‘persistence of ecstasy’ continues, just as all music and drug relations constantly ebb and flow. Indeed, the histories of drugs such as LSD, ecstasy and ketamine are intimately intertwined with the global phenomenon of dance music culture in all its myriad of localised forms.

Work from within some Public Health traditions emphasises potential risks and harms of alcohol/drug use in dance music spaces and focuses on reducing these ‘dangers’ (i.e. the club health model) where better information and education is understood as key. Club Health – a well established ‘sub-discipline’ – is situated within interdisciplinary research on the night time economy (NTE), with dance music spaces located in a broader concern with interpersonal violence, criminalisation, stigmatisation and surveillance, particularly of leisure spaces frequented by clubbers, with ID scans and sniffer dogs a familiar sight for many dance music fans.

Ethnographic methods have also been deployed to explore crime, deviance and trangression in the NTE, highlighting the pivotal role that alcohol, drug use and drug-distribution play in sustaining the dance music ‘industry’. In this body of work, power and the production of ‘evidence’ from an often limited pool of professional ‘expertise’ is considered. Dance music scholars have also drawn on the work of Pierre Bourdieu and others to examine in detail the processes and practices of formal/informal control, self-regulation and socioeconomic, cultural and chemical inclusion/exclusion apparent in dance music culture.

Within electronic dance music culture research we have increasingly come to understand drug use as an aspect of capitalist consumer societies where for example, commodifed “rave experiences” are sold to young adults invited to enjoy a “controlled loss of control” in regulated spaces. Whilst some make considerable commercial gains from such dance music events, those caught up in regulatory and criminal responses to alcohol and drug use pay a heavy price for their ‘commitment’ to a dance music scene, leading some writers to suggest that our prohibitionist regime amounts to the criminalisation of a cultural form. On occasion the pleasure of engagement with dance ‘brands’ and what are opaquely framed as ‘base’ desires, the seemingly nihilist intent to become extremely intoxicated for example, have been dismissed as meaningless hedonism pertaining to dance music cultures’ in/authenticity. This belies society’s ambivalent relationship towards drugs and their role in the production of any cultural form, from art to literature to music to dance. This ambivalence – fascination within and repugnance towards – any drug users in these cultural spheres is most viscerally felt in relation to those ‘made visible’ and rendered ‘immobile’ through demonisation but also reification (the club drug death ‘victim’).

Some club drug users are profoundly engaged with perceived established social norms and values, with research highlighting how dance music are far from apolitical, with drug policy change for example the concern of many dance music culture participants. It is also worth considering fashion and body politics when exploring dance music cultures’ enduring and complex relationship with drugs. Smiley symbolism and outward displays of ‘dubious behaviours’ – clutching a water bottle, drinking ‘to excess’ – sit uncomfortably with the ethos or aims of some dance music cultures, whilst ‘commercialised’ spaces may resent the ‘outlaw’ status their customers’ drug use endows them with. Of course many dance clubs and dance event promoters and owners have to take the expected ‘zero tolerance’ stance towards their customers in order to remain a going concern.

In mainstream media portrayals of dance music culture, drug-taking is largely framed as wholly irresponsible in the face of perceived ‘risks’, most definitely illegal given global prohibition regimes, and most probably ‘immoral’. Here drugs are positioned as malevolent ‘agents’ and their users, often through historically resonant racialised and classed figures of the “dope fiend”, “evil E pusher” or the “binge drinker”, are positioned as the ‘Other’, even “the enemy within”. Drug taking is at times understood as a contested ‘problematic’ undertaking which disrupts, somehow ‘spoils’ or even has the potential to ‘ruin’ a dance music scene; the advent of ketamine in the free party circuit and the North of England after-party scene in the mid to late 2000s being two examples.

Drugs occupy an ambivalent position in dance music culture. It is perhaps unsurprising then that many pivotal texts on dance music cultures remain relatively silent on drugs. This brings us to those “brave few” who have approached drugs in dance music cultures as but one, albeit crucial, aspect of participants’ complex nuanced engagement with dance music culture, with for example drug use being explored in the context of intense encounters with those also committed to a scene. Postgraduate and early-career stage researchers have undertaken fascinating single or multi-sited ethnographies of dance music cultures in order to capture how mobile music consumer subjects circulate the global flows of dance music happenings (see for example Dr Bina Bhardwa’s emergent work using mobile methods), and how they are in turn implicated in the global production and consumption of drugs. Here drugs and drug use are positioned as crucial to a scene’s ‘vibe’, vitality and endurance.

We have also seen increasingly recourse to understanding how drugs as ‘technologies’ or as ‘mediatory agents’ shape and are shaped by the embodied emotional experiences of participants in dance music culture. These experiences can for some be profoundly “life-changing”, for others less so. Indeed it is the potentialities of dance music culture as being both subject to, and an agent of, social change that often engages us. Dance music scholarship has for example mapped improvements in health and wellbeing through participation in post-rave club culture; enjoyment in the expression of musical affiliation through situated identity work; and continuity and change in the re/making of ‘alternative’ spaces for dance music collectives. Open access academic journals such as Dancecult have showcased work to better understand multisensory electronic dance floors and to value electronic dance music as a cultural form. The disruption of the concept of ‘drugs’ through work deploying and critiquing Actor Network Theory (ANT) has also opened up another critical space for those studying drugs and dance music cultures, with Contemporary Drug Problems publicising and publishing pioneering work on this approach.

It really is an exciting time for club and club drug researchers, with a growing recognition that dance music cultures are here to stay, and are in fact going from strength to strength (the recent explosion of Deep House in the UK is but one example!!). As the next generation of researchers immerses themselves in mapping and debating the global phenomenon of drugs and dance music cultures, I feel excited and indeed thankful as I am sure we can look forward to more fascinating and illuminating studies from dedicated people for whom dance music really matters.



Most drug-takers are ‘recreational’ users who will come to little or no harm, and who will not become dependent. Shocking but true!

Paul Hayes is Honorary Professor London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. As CEO of the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse, he was responsible to ministers and parliament for the funding and delivery of treatment for drug addiction in England between 2001/13. He currently chairs the Northern Inclusion Consortium, a collaboration between five third sector organisations providing integrated responses to social and economic exclusion.

In this article from the Conversation, and following in the footsteps of great drug researchers such as Dr Russell Newcombe, who has also pointed out over the years the ‘recreational’/’problematic’ ratio, Paul details how we need to rethink our drug policies in line with the simple fact that most users do not experience problems.

Read Paul’s short article here


Karenza x

Happy New Year to all!

Wishing you a happy and healthy 2015.


Let’s make this year a safer one for all ravers and clubbers, and a better one for all those struggling with alcohol and drugs.

Best wishes

Karenza x


EU-MADNESS? Questioning current research and policy agendas on ‘legal highs’

There are few things that shock me in relation to the world of drugs research, policy and practice. I have heard young adults’ accounts of the indignities of being strip-searched at festivals. I have witnessed a complete lack of regard for the health and wellbeing of those experiencing dependency difficulties with GHB/GBL. And I have heard, like a repeat drum loop, the “drugs are bad” message from otherwise highly intelligent individuals who would normally question such deterministic and overly simplistic statements.

However, today I was shocked. Every morning I read Drugscope’s fantastic news feed which pops up like an old friend in my university email account inbox. Some stories are interesting and well sourced, others less so, but remain readable nonetheless. Today there was a story about and a link to the new website of the EUropean-wide, Monitoring, Analysis and knowledge Dissemination on Novel/Emerging pSychoactiveS or EU-Madness project, led by a UK university and spanning five countries with multiple partners. 

Visit http://www.eumadness.eu/.

This is why I am shocked. How might an organisation such as the EU, employing the best of European talent in the drugs research field, arrive at the decision to call a wide-ranging project on emergent drugs/novel psychoactive substances(NPS)/’legal highs’ the EU-Madness project? And yes, that is a rhetorical question.

“So what?” What is in a name? To be fair it is quite catchy! However, it is worth reflecting on how this project acts as an exemplar of an ongoing and seemingly willful disregard for the wider geopolitical contexts (War on Drugs anyone?) and the social worlds (consumer capitalist culture anyone?) in which NPS or ‘legal highs’ emerge, are consumed, demand attention, are researched, and ultimately regulated.

Is using the word ‘Madness’ (even as a laboured acronym) really appropriate in our supposedly enlightened and progressive contemporary society? It is as if in the world of drugs research (notably in neuroscience), the last 30 years of sociological questioning of deleterious stereotypes about ‘drugs’ and their users, and the contestation of moralising myths about mental disorders, never happened (see Rogers and Pilgrim 2010 for an excellent introduction to these issues).

Disappointingly, but unsurprisingly (why am I shocked then? Too idealistic as usual!) taking any ‘drugs’ is framed yet again as ‘mad’, and users are positioned as troublesome subjects who disrupt the ‘civilised’ social order in the misguided pursuit of pleasure. And so on and so forth.

No doubt new knowledge about novel drugs which pose fresh risks to us will be generated by the EU-Madness team. They are a nice bunch. Yet I reserve the right to retain my reservations. The familiar emphasis on ‘risks’ as out there, just waiting to be discovered, is typical of official responses to psychoactive substances, legal or otherwise, popular or not. Yet, as eminent drug researchers Ross Coomber and Nigel South recently argued “an informed statement on drug risks (just like drug effects more widely) has to go “beyond” the drug” (2014: 240).

It is a shame they didn’t think of a more appropriate name. The popular Southpark saying “DRUGS ARE BAD” may have been more aligned with the stated project aims and objectives perhaps?

Stay safe,


R. Coomber, and N. South. (2014) “Fear and Loathing in Drugs Policy: Risk, Rights and Approaches to Drug Policy and Practice” in B.C. Labate and C. Cavnar (eds.) Prohibition, Religious Freedom, and Human Rights: Regulating Traditional Drug Use, DOI 10.1007/978-3-642-40957-8_12, Berlin Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag.

Rogers, A. and Pilgrim, D. (2010) A Sociology of Mental Health and Illness, 4th Ed. Maidenhead: Open University Press. Winner of the BMA Medical Book Award.


‘Fan Researchers’: Supporting students to explore youth cultures

Among the most pleasing aspects of being an academic is engaging with young adults who are interested in the same or similar research topics as oneself. So, when an undergraduate student from another university contacted me to ask if I would mind being interviewed for her documentary on “contemporary club culture” which would form part of her final year assessment, I jumped at the chance.

From past experience, these students are incredibly active and passionately interested in what us ageing academics call “youth cultures” or “youth scenes”; it is precisely that passion and interest that drives their desire to study them. Whilst highly motivated and keen, they typically need guidance around how to focus their often broad brush interests, reign in their passion and produce a viable study with that much needed critical edge.

There has been criticism from some quarters that we should not encourage ‘fan research’ among students (nor indeed established academics!) as it has a tendency to produce solipsistic journalistic and sloppy academic outputs. Yet this seems to be a case of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”, an oddly popular phrase among academics, but maybe that reflection is another blog post for another day!

Some of the most robust and engaging research on dance club cultures has come from what might broadly be called ‘fan researchers’. At a British Academy/University of Manchester event I attended yesterday on ‘Material, Affective and Sensory Turns in the Academy’, I was surprised and pleased to be reminded by Professor David Howes – Canadian Anthropologist and Director of the Concordia Sensoria Research Team (CONSERT) – of Phil Jackson’s fantastic book published in 2004 titled Inside Clubbing: Sensual Experiments in the Art of Being Human, Oxford: Berg.  Away from dance club cultures, Paul Hodkinson‘s (2002) book Goth remains for me the paragon of researching a culture from what Paul refers to as a ‘critical insider’ position.

Much has been said and much more needs to be said on ‘fan research’, on insider/outsider research positions, and more practically on what is ‘best’ for our students to be researching in-depth during their precious years at university. What seems abundantly clear however is that encouraging students to harness their passionate interest in youth cultures is rewarding for lecturer and student alike, and can produce some bold pieces of work worthy of our attention.

“Living in Ecstasy – The Rise of the MDMA”

And so it is in this spirit that I dedicate this blog post to Clodagh whose professionalism through the process impressed me greatly and whose unbound enthusiasm for club cultures research helped reignite mine 🙂

Rave safe,


Briefing on Benzo Analogue Etizolam Released Today

Today sees the release of an Etizolam briefing by the Scottish Drugs Forum. I have been wondering how long it would take for this benzo analogue to come to the attention of (typically experienced) drug users, national and local drug services, and ultimately the UK government. You can read it here.

In Manchester, local services are seeing clients presenting with specific problems in relation to “blues” including withdrawal difficulties, memory loss, rebound anxiety and so on. My verdict on “blues”? Maybe okay to take to get oneself off to sleep post-clubbing, but definitely not something to get into on a daily basis, and certainly not something to be taken lightly.

Look out for a forthcoming study on ‘blag benzos’ by Club Research at Lancaster University.

Best wishes


Druglink review of our Key Concepts in Drugs and Society book

As a Lecturer in Sociology at Lancaster University, helping students gain an understanding of the contested nature of ‘drugs’ and what we might call ‘the drugs problem’ is often at the forefront of my mind. The challenge is to support student learning about an incredibly complex issue presented in often simplistic and moralistic terms by the media and politicians.

Teaching my final year module Drugs, Crime and Society has been a pleasure this year, with the students really getting stuck into the debates that are crucial in critical drug studies. I hope the book my colleagues and I recently published helped them, and will help others in years to come.

Coomber, R., McElrath, K., Measham, F. and Moore, K. (2013) Key Concepts in Drugs and Society, London: Sage.

Review as published June 2014