Not strictly a cannabis story but something has just passed its 10th anniversary and needs a mention.

April 1999 saw one of those events which shaped my involvement with drug law campaigning; a bit like a “train in the face” as an American friend described it; the danger prohibition causes was served up in all its raw ugliness and slapped in front of me early one morning. Up to this point I had seen drug law reform as mostly an issue of “freedom of choice”, although I had been interested in the concept of harm reduction, the idea of properly controlling and regulating the business side the whole thing creates hadn’t really occurred to me. That all changed on Sunday 4th April 1999.

My life has calmed down a lot over the past 10 years, but 1999 was the run-up to the millennium and I had been in London for a long weekend of partying. It was Saturday April 3rd and together with my friend Doug who had come down from Edinburgh I headed for a free party in the East end.

This party took place in what is now a very plush office block known as “Number 1 Brick Lane”, but which back in 1999 was standing derelict.  I’d discovered the  free parties the last time I was down in London, another friend Paj had taken me along to one, but this was to be the first I took myself to ….

The venue was a huge blue and white office block on the corner of Brick Lane in the East End. Loads of people are arriving as we turn up around midnight and boom-boom-boom is coming from inside, so we give the £5 “donation” and in we go.

Posted on the door is a notice explaining that this is a legal squat and that the squatters live there, a “Section 63 ” notice apparently.

This place is huge. Over something like 7 floors (including the cellar) there were rooms and rooms of sound systems. I lost count of how many there were, but it was much more than the 6 promised on the party line phone message. There was everything from London Acid Techno to Tech-house, although most of the music was of the hard intense psychedelic techno variety which I liked a lot.

Me and Doug start exploring and we find an office with some people inside, we go chat and the first of several strange things happen; I’m talking to this person about video editing and such (it’s my job) and he shows me what’s in his bag – a hidden video camera. He also has a mobile phone (this is in the early days of mobiles) and so I get him to ring my home phone and leave his mobile number on my answer machine. Later I get a copy of his tape, which is now on Youtube for the world to enjoy. The video was all shot early on in the night though, as things progressed it got a lot more crowded and generally more manic.

The Brick Lane party video

As the video shows, of all the rooms with sound systems in the “Lysergic” room was the most intense. With only the light from a UV tube and one strobe, which flashed at the same speed all night without a break, this was a hard acid techno room and I must admit I liked that one. The night was spent either dancing myself silly or wandering around this huge building, constantly finding more and more new areas and different systems.

One thing was clear though, the event was popular, massively popular. Despite there being no advertising and the phone lines not opening ’till 10.00pm, loads of people turned up, and the place was heaving – particularly the stairwell – and for a while it was difficult to get to the ground floor so I stayed upstairs.

The reason for the popularity was simple, there were no hassles from the authorities or bouncers. This was free land, go mad in an empty office block, no door searches, no sound level limits and of course no-one making sure you don’t have too much fun, oh and loads of drugs.

Anyway, somehow I lost Doug for a while so I continued my wanderings down a second staircase, through the water supply room and into a huge underground room and a system with the most beautiful sounds and a wonderful light rig, but not too many people seemed to know it was there.

I came back up to the first level where the punk band had been, now there was a small area with a PA and a guy with a CD, MD and DAT arrangement playing “home made” music of various types. This guy looked like a real thug, huge he was with deep set eyes. He seemed to know his music though and was treating the CDs with utmost care.

Now I began to see the strength of the underground in London, the brilliance of the music and the two little figures held stiff against the blandness of commercialism, I was enjoying this, but then I noticed the punks, many of whom had been doing a lot of ketamine and some had crashed out, others staggered around. I decided it was a bit scary there, so I wondered off back upstairs.

On one floor there was what had been a restaurant. Although the serving counter had been stripped out, the room still had that air of potted plants and people in suites, it had been a very smart place in its day. Next to the restaurant was the old kitchen area, with a large glass chimney over what had been the cookers, beyond that more rooms, more corridors.

When I got back to this area the restaurant was full of people standing around silently, it was the tripping room. The sound of breaking glass came from the kitchen.

It was about this time I began to notice the place was developing a “down at heel” look, bottles strewn everywhere, graffiti starting to build up on the walls. Several times I heard the sound of breaking glass as people were having fun trashing the offices. Actually it’s fair to say I was getting as trashed as the building was.

The party was in full swing and the whole building resonated to the combined sound of the systems which produced a sort of “banging rumble”, especially impressive in the stairwell.

More rooms later I find Doug, who seemed to be enjoying his first free party rave. He’d been having an interesting time as well. I had been worried as to how he would feel about all of this, certainly it was quite unlike anything he had experienced before but he seemed happy enough and we went upstairs together to yet another room.

This room was huge. It was daylight by now (had been for some time) and the large “glass wall” windows let the light flood in to show a somewhat trashed open plan office room full of trashed people going mental to banging intense psychedelic techno. After dancing for some time I took a break and sat down for a chill.

As we were talking, some bloke on an out of control acid trip introduces himself by slapping me on my head. A short while later and he runs headlong into one of the large windows, crashes through it, swings on the glazing bar, gets pulled back in and thrown into my arms.

Suddenly I’m holding a person with a massive cut to his stomach area, I’m covered in blood and we have a full scale emergency on our hands.

Party over.

He became known as the “window jumper” and was very lucky to survive, I certainly didn’t know I could do any kind of first aid, never mind something like that in an environment like that. To be fair I think my only real contribution was to get the situation under control, which bought enough time to get the ambulance in. But that, I guess, is what first aid is all about. Other people helped as well and in its way it was an impressive demonstration of the self-help the alternative culture is famous for. But make no mistake, he was lucky.

Anyway, once the ambulance and police business was done, me and Doug left and went for a cup of tea. I was going into a form of shock – post traumatic stress disorder – which took some time to clear. Thanks to the police and an amazing bit of luck I was able to make contact with Mr Skywalker and I told him the full story, that helped to clear my mind and it seems his a lot. He did make a full recovery anyway, but I don’t think he went to anymore illegal parities.

Moves to clamp down on drugs in nightclubs in the 1990’s saw an upswing in free parties as a result – an illustration of the so called “balloon effect”, of how the war on drugs is as effective as trying to nail jelly to the ceiling.

Free parties still happen, despite a greatly increased attempt by the police to prevent them and all the harsh new laws passed since 1999. In truth these events are the modern equivalent of “speakeasies”, the illegal bars that operated during American alcohol prohibition and like the speakeasies free parties are supported by an underground culture.  They can only be prevented by continued enforcement which is expensive, especially when the parties happen in remote rural areas. Of course if the parties happen in remote areas everyone has to drive to them and calling on the blue light emergency services becomes next to impossible.

Rave parties and similar events shouldn’t happen in dangerous buildings or remote locations; they often create problems for people living nearby and sometimes when emergencies happen there’s no-one there to get the situation under control. But they are fun in ways the sanitised club scene simply can’t be and the search for unrestricted fun is a great motivator.

A country that is forced to spend an ever increasing amount on ever more repressive policing and introduces ever more restrictive laws in order to prevent people from having a party is a pretty sick country to be honest. But this is only a tiny part of the madness that is engulfing us thanks to the war on drugs.

Derek