“Polis accuse nightclub of being a place where people take drugs” seemed like a perfect headline for April Fool’s Day. But when The Arches, Glasgow City Council’s Licensing Board and Police Scotland are involved, it’s hard to tell who’s trying to fool who.
Last weekend, The Arches, a popular venue in Glasgow’s City Centre, was closed following police intervention. While media reports initially highlighted that a woman was found unconscious and that 26 people had been reported for drug and alcohol offences, the Arches lawyer stated 15 drug offences were reported by Arches staff following searches, while many of the alcohol offences were as a result of searches conducted by the Police in the street, after the venue had been closed.
Presumably, in searching and reporting their punters, the Arches were acting at the behest of the cops , who have taken a “keen interest” in the running of the place following prior incidents – most notably, the death of a young woman last year. In the wake of this, the venue was pressurised into various new measures, including an over-21s policy, the result of which was that 2 months later, a 39-year-old man was hospitalised, having been believed to have taken pills at the venue. The important context, a small but notable rise in the contamination of what was being sold as ecstasy, particularly in Scotland and particularly involving PMA, was sidelined from the official story, with the venue and “the drugs” being blamed in equal measure.
Yesterday, the Police sought a closure order from the Licensing Board. Since this is Police Scotland they obviously fucked it up, seeking it on incorrect grounds meaning it was thrown out. A new order is expected to be sought and mostly likely granted within weeks. This may spell the end for The Arches as we know it.
So why care? Why hold a candle for a massive venue like the Arches when there are so many other spaces and nights out there?
I don’t really care about The Arches as a club. I’m far too old to find it fun anymore, it’s always been too big and usually too packed for someone who likes the space and tranquillity of a sweaty basement. If there were genuine safety concerns at the weekend, the correct thing to do was to close it down. I’d be the first to moan if inaction had led to something more serious.
My concern is the outcome being sought, one which I fear may be worse than the “problem” it alleges to address. That and the complete dishonesty which dominates the discussion about clubbing and drugs.
The truth which dare not be speak its name is that for years The Arches has operated as a large and relatively space safe in which drugs, most notably alcohol and ecstasy, have been consumed. Given the scale of the whole operation, I’d bet any group of people doing the same thing would induce at least as much strain on police and health services. The venue had water at the bar, without queuing/begging, there were always medics about, hunners of bouncers, toilet attendants and often, the Police themselves. In operational terms, it was strategy of containment, as much as is permissible when we all have to pretend we have no idea what’s going on. Now Police Scotland are switching what they do “best”, dispersal, “break it up folks, move along.”
Where will people go? What will they do? The simple answer is they’ll take themselves and their drugs elsewhere. Will every place former Arches punters stumble into have full searches, police dogs and medics on hand? Or are we making clubbers more vulnerable by shunting them down some other dark alley?
Some might stay at home and annoy their neighbours with their music and bad patter, some might go to other clubs and get plastered and some might end up spaces which exist just enough below the radar they are ignored by the police. I’d venture, not a single less drug, legal or otherwise, will be taken but there will be less supervision of that consumption without the industrial-scale methods currently employed at The Arches. Some might argue that’s a benefit – but those some are unlikely to include the cops or the council, at least not officially.
We need an honest discussion about the way the police and local authorities manage spaces broadly intended for the consumption of alcohol and drugs. Accepting there are thousands of such places in existence all across the country would be a sensible starting point. Assessing whether and why the Arches could be considered one of the better kinds of said venues would be the next step. But we’ll never get that far, at least in the few weeks The Arches may have left.
The fight for a safer club scene, where drugs and not people are what get tested most on the door, seems a long way from being won right now. Our furious media would never tolerate the suggestion that the 1 in 10 Scots who confess to have taken pills or the many thousands who’ve had a burl at the Arches over the years aren’t the intolerable menace they’re made out to be. Music, dancing and people using susbstances to alter their mental state didn’t originate in this nightclub nor will they cease if The Arches is closed.
Police Scotland are hoping to seize the smoking/boozing/pill popping gun, to make themselves look hard but by closing The Arches, they may create problems they have neither the will nor the resources to deal with. A big and largely compliant beast could be smashed up into tiny, more troublesome and hard to reach pieces, which the polis, the criminal justice system, the health service and people who just happen to be going out dancing will nonetheless have to pick up.
The Arches days may be numbered but the “war on drugs”- and the war against the creation of a more safe environment for clubbers and everyone else – rumbles senselessly and expensively on.