Breathalysers at Clubs - A Step Too Far in London's War on Nightlife?

It may work on paper, but is this just a ruse by the Met in its attempts to prevent violence?

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Feb 4 2015, 7:00pm

The last 12 months have seen a grim string of events unfold within London's storied nightlife scene. A series of closures and archaic security policies have dampened the verve of the city's late night partygoers. Matters recently came to a gloomy culmination in the form of threats to Fabric's operating license last November in the aftermath of multiple drugs deaths. Meanwhile, ongoing measures against Holloway Road's People's Club, the closure of Madame Jojo's, and the end of both the Joiner's Arms and Plastic People earlier this month do not bode well for the city's nightlife.

These troubles have mostly fostered the perception that London's various local authorities, the Metropolitan Police and "man-of-the-people" Mayor Boris Johnson are waging war on London's clubbers. News that the Met plans to team up with venues across six London boroughs to pilot a new breathalyser system upon entry, has done little to quell these concerns.

Operation Equinox, quietly launched last October by the Met, aims to reduce the level of violent crime in London by targeting "licensed venues such as pubs, nightclubs and fast food outlets," as per the Met's own description. The campaign's latest initiative grants club and pub door staff equipment and authority to breathalyse, at their discretion, those they deem to be too intoxicated to enter the venue. As a spokesperson for the Met Police outlined, "the devices consist of a cylindrical tube, on which an external switch lights up with the colour red if the breath of an individual who has blown into it is found to contain 80 mg or more of alcohol (around 2.5 the legal limit for driving)." In other words, you could drink around four regular strength pints and be denied entry.

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Photo credit: Entertainment.ie

The presumed intention is that these measures will stop club goers from tanking up before heading out and, in turn, reduce alcohol-related violence inside clubs. With the scheme tested already at a small number of venues in Croydon, Chief Inspector Gary Taylor told the Evening Standard that anecdotal evidence suggested it was a success. "They have told us that it did help reduce violence and confrontations involving door staff," he told the paper. "The breathalyser helps to reduce the number of arguments when door staff refuse entry to someone who is intoxicated."

On top of this breathalyser programme, recent requirements by the Islington council that Fabric use drug-sniffing dogs and ID scanners at its entry have compounded the feeling for many clubgoers that going out in London currently means having to contend with invasive security measures. One key criticism of these actions is the expanding view that authorities are treating the symptoms rather than the causes of recent incidents of violence. Stopping club patrons upon entry doesn't address the attitudes that have made binge drinking and the spread of impure narcotics such a legitimate concern for local governments and an apparent strain on the NHS.

Jordan Gross, co-founder of Bethnal Green venue Oval Space, suggests that the Metropolitan Police should instead be focusing their efforts on harm reduction and welfare for those attending late-night events, especially given the spate of drug-related deaths due to impure substances like PMA. He cites The Warehouse Project's current partnership with Manchester Police that has seen them step up drug warnings and introduce a drug testing scheme as one example of how the situation could be improved.

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London club Fabric

Alex Benson, director of annual techno event Bloc. and part of the team behind the promoter's Autumn Street venue in Hackney Wick, similarly describes current UK drug laws as "archaic and unworkable." He believes that violence, alcohol-fueled or otherwise, is a greater problem than drugs and that police action should be fashioned suitably, while asserting that "of course, as responsible venue operators, we uphold the current law to the letter."

According to the Met, however, their methods are working so far. "Early anecdotal evidence suggests the trial had positive results with the venues supportive of the devices," Chief Inspector Taylor said in the Standard. "The venues reported fewer altercations caused by intoxicated customers attempting to gain entry, and consequently a reduction in the potential for alcohol-related disorder to take place inside their premises."

With breathalyser trials now being spread out to six further London boroughs, it remains to be seen whether these devices truly have the power to limit alcohol-fueled violence and make the work of London's door staff easier.

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Photo credit: ITV

It's important to note that the Met's campaigns against drug deaths and alcohol-driven violence are separate crusades, but when held in tandem, they do paint a picture of an entire culture under fire. Even so, the looming spectre of club closures is only rarely driven by the government's hand. Figures from last September recorded a 19.1% year-on-year jump on the average property price in the capital. These perpetually rising rents coupled with a customer base that would rather drink at home and often prefers narcotics over booze when clubbing squeezes margins tighter every year.

What mitigates the victim mentality that much of the clubbing public has assumed in this saga is that the Met's breathalyzer policy, if placed in practice, would be a boon to club owners around the city. Less booze in the body as a clubber arrives means they'll have to pay the club premium to get their fill. Bloc's Alex Benson appears sympathetic, despite the potential windfall: "Nothing would give me more joy than to make the drinks cheaper at Autumn St, but the pesky rent rates, bills, DJ fees, wages, legal costs and building maintenance just keep getting in the way."

Club culture's consumer base is by no means absolved of any agency in the situation – drug overdoses do happen and violence is unfortunately common, but the Met's responses may prove to be as counter-productive as they are heavy handed. Fundamentally, punters have the ability to vote with their feet. The response across social media and online to the news of these measures has been less than positive and so, as long as the Met's extension of this scheme continues on a voluntary rather than compulsory basis, we all face the choice of what makes us comfortable and what we deem to be too invasive and the venues that we attend can continue to be shaped accordingly.