We Spoke to an Academic Who's Spent 25 Years Researching Drugs in Clubs

"I'm 24/7 obsessed with drugs, that's all I talk about"

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Dec 11 2014, 9:21pm

Measham testing a drug sample at The Warehouse Project.

For over two decades, Professor Fiona Measham has been researching what we get up to in nightclubs. Measham got her first job in a nightclub when she was fifteen and by the sounds of it she's spent much of her time in them since. As part of her research she's interviewed numerous clubbers over the years, fondly recalling several summers spent in Vauxhall's gay clubs for one of her projects. Although her family are surprisingly less interested in the many stories she has to tell of her club experiences – which you'd think would liven up the dinner table conversation. "I drive my family mad. I'm 24/7 obsessed with drugs, that's all I talk about," she admits. 

The UK seems to share Measham's obsession, there has been no significant decline in illegal drug use according to surveys. Demand for ecstasy in particular has been on the up and Measham has seen an increase in the MDMA content of samples she's tested as part of her research. "Never underestimate the Great British public's voracious demand for MDMA," she says. It would seem we are a nation of perpetual pill poppers.

As well as holding an academic post as a Professor of Criminology at Durham University, Measham is a co-founder of The Loop, a community interest group that has been piloting a number of drug testing schemes in nightclubs and music festivals around the country. Last year, in the wake of the tragic death of Nick Bonnie, Manchester's The Warehouse Project worked together with the local council and The Loop, to provide in-club drug testing and information for clubbers. With fluctuations in the strength of MDMA, reportedly increasing fivefold since 2009, unaware clubbers are more at risk of overdosing. Which makes schemes like those currently in place at WHP, that warn clubbers of mis-sold or adulterated drugs, potentially lifesaving. I asked Measham about the challenges she's faced with the scheme and what conducting research in a club environment is like.

MDMA crystals.

THUMP: How difficult is it trying to conduct research on clubbers that are taking drugs?
Professor Fiona Measham: I've been doing research for twenty five years and I've never really had any problems at all. Once people believe that you're not a police officer – fortunately I don't look like I could be, I'm tiny and not threatening – most people are happy to talk to me. But the main proviso is that you have to get them early on in the evening before they've really got into the drug use, you don't want to get them in the middle when they're off their heads and just wanting to dance. When I speak to people on Monday mornings that's always interesting as they usually have a very different perspective to Friday night.

How do you conduct your research?
At the moment I've got my special laser which I use to test drugs at clubs and festivals. I give my findings back to emergency services on site and also to users. The Warehouse Project in Manchester, where I do a lot of my research, has a welfare team that will ensure information gets around. So for example, last Saturday night seven friends had thought they'd bought ketamine and they were having a terrible time, with several having to go to hospital: when I tested it I found out it was actually methoxetamine. As soon as I tested we could put warnings out on the Warehouse Project socials that methoxetamine is being mis-sold as ketamine. The problem with that is that ketamine is thirty minutes of mild hallucinations while methoxetamine is 2 or 3 hours of major hallucinations.

Manchester's The Warehouse Project

How long does it take you to get results?
With my infrared laser, it's a matter of minutes. There's only 15 of these machines for drug testing purposes in the UK, I'm one of the only people doing this in a club environment. The police do testing as well but they take 18 months to release their results and that's no use to anyone.

If we can get that information to clubbers on the night then they can dose appropriately. The danger is fluctuating purity within an illegal market: the purity goes up people get caught out and overdose. We've seen that with, for example, Nick Bonnie's death at the WHP.

Would it be possible to replicate what you do around the country?
Fingers crossed, with the permission of the police, I'm about to do it in another major dance club in the South East. I've also done testing at several festivals this summer. Last week, The Loop Foundation won an award for Best New Technology at the UK Festival Awards for their work at Parklife festival.

At the moment it is prohibitively expensive, the equipment costs more than a very posh car. There's only three police forces in the country that have them, lots of them can't afford them. Now that that the technology is available and reliable we should do it.

Measham can match samples to a computer database using the kit pictured.

Did you face any difficulties in getting the government to agree to the scheme?
Some people within the Home Office were not particularly supportive of the drug testing at the WHP last year. Which is one of the reasons The Loop bought the machine themselves and got permission and support from the local police and the club. It's politicians that are wary of any drugs testing proposals.

Has there been a rise in ecstasy use of late?
There's definitely been a renewed interested in ecstasy in the current generation. If you look at the national surveys, use hasn't decreased massively: there was an increase since the 1990s up to a peak in 2002 and then it's only very slightly gone down since then. At that point, I think there was a sense that ecstasy was an old fashioned drug and it was a bit naff to be gurning in the corner. Gone were the days of people hugging strangers.

So is there any truth to the seemingly widespread belief that "pills were better back in the day" or is it a popular myth?
When I first started doing research it was £15 for one tablet, although it did use to be 100mg content. Over the 90s, the MDMA content went down and so did the price: first to £10, then to £5 and eventually 3 for £10. So as the price went down and down so did the MDMA content until we got to the point in 2008/9 in the UK and across Europe where there wasn't a lot of MDMA in ecstasy tablets and at the same time you had the rise of MDMA crystal which sort of a response to that. At some point they reached the low of a pound a pill.

What's interesting now is that the average purity of ecstasy tablets in the UK has gone up by 5 times in 5 years: an average of 20mg in 2009 to 100 mg now. So it's true in a way.

Has that been a response to trends in the US do you think?
The US seem to be lagging behind us in terms of drugs and music, I think they're going through what we went through 10 or 15 years ago. They're on their second summer of love and we're on our fourth or something. There's definitely a high demand for ecstasy in the US at the moment but for much of the 90s it was quite difficult to get ecstasy into the US in any significant amount.

I remember having American students come to the UK who'd go to Manchester because they wanted to go clubbing and they couldn't believe how easily available ecstasy was in the UK and how relatively cheap it was. And people still think that. I go to drug conferences around the world and my colleagues will ask me about the price of drugs in the UK and they're always gobsmacked by the low cost and availability of MDMA.

Why is that?
We're a stone's throw from the Netherlands where much of Europe's supply of MDMA is produced and also you can never underestimate the Great British public's voracious demand for MDMA.

Two festival-goers at Tomorrowland.

How much change is there between the top five club drugs?
It depends on where you go. I do research every summer in London gay clubs and in Vauxhall mephedrone has been the most popular drug for the past five years. Whereas if you went to the Warehouse Project or most mainstream clubs it would be mostly ecstasy and you'd hardly ever find GBL or mephedrone.

Why is that?
Well when I ask clubbers in Vauxhall, they tell me that it's short lasting, it's a stimulant and it's great for sex. I think it's down to the different functions of different drugs. So the people I spoke to there were more interested in drugs that are good for sex whereas the people I spoke to at the WHP were taking drugs for dancing.

But in Vauxhall the quantities consumed over the course of the weekend is much more because people are staying out sometimes from Friday right through until Sunday evening. I've got a great photograph of a guy in a crazy black and white stripy outfit who I knew hadn't been to bed all weekend because you couldn't miss him each night I went down there. I asked him why he hadn't changed outfits, he replied that he couldn't because his mum had made his outfit for him and she'd sewn him into it so he couldn't take it off.

Former Vauxhall nightclub Crash. Photo: Alan Cross.

Final question, have you ever come across a simulator called Drugwars?
I've not, I've never actually played any video game.

Fair enough, I suppose you'd probably want to do something unrelated to your work in your leisure time.
Actually I probably would want to, that makes it more interesting to me. I drive my family mad because I'm 24/7 obsessed with drugs, that's all I talk about.