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Drugs: the open door policy

As some bouncers muscle in on the drugs trade, Jason Bennetto reports on attempts to deal with the dealers in dinner suits
It was the smell of burning nylon that gave the first clue. The odour was traced to a cubicle in the men's toilet at the south London bar. It took two sharp kicks to break the lock and burst open the door. The tiny room inside had been laid out like a temple. Three candles were alight, lying next to them on a back ledge were teaspoons, a ball of wool, some tin foil wraps and syringes. Slumped on the toilet seat was an attractive dark-skinned woman. The needle from an empty syringe was sticking out of her arm. Standing next to her was a tall white man.

"It was a horrible situation - the girl had just shot up and was hysterical. She was in a real state, she was crying and saying her job and life were ruined," recalls Neil Kindness, head of security. "The man was ambivalent about it all. He said he was only giving her a cigarette."

Within minutes about a dozen uniformed police officers poured past the bouncers on the front door and pushed through hundreds of clubbers crammed into the music bar in Brixton, south London. The security team believed the cubicle was being used as a temporary drugs den for a group of friends to shoot up with heroin between rounds of lager. The wool ball was used to filter the heroin after it had been heated on the teaspoon, giving off the tell-tale whiff of burnt nylon.

After being searched the woman and man were handcuffed and lead back out through the club - just the kind of public spectacle you would imagine the owners of a young, happening venue would bend over backwards to avoid. But in what at first appears to be a bizarre role reversal, the owners of the Dog Star, one of Brixton's most popular bars, actively court the police. They want them to barge into a packed room at 1am and drag drug dealers out onto the street.

Neil, 34, who apart from wearing a bullet- and stab-proof vest fails to live up to the image of a piece of brainless brawn crammed into a dinner jacket, is employed to blend in with the crowd and take out dealers. "If you just throw out a dealer, he will be back in a few weeks, so the only way is to get the police involved - otherwise we'll be seen as a soft touch," he explains.

The former army captain who has also worked in a diplomatic protection unit expects to call in the police about once a week. The vest protects him against low-calibre hand guns, he says, but unfortunately high-calibre guns are currently much cheaper in the area and so much more likely to be used.

By making the Dog Star a high-risk area for drug dealers the owners can build a good relationship with the police - which helps them when it comes to renewing their licence. It also attracts people who are more interested in music and booze than popping pills, and so boosts their alcohol sales, as getting high and drinking large quantities of beer do not usually mix.

But not all bars and clubs take such a strong stance on drugs, as a new report from the Home Office has revealed.

Take Liverpool as an example. One notorious private security firm that supplied bouncers, or "door supervisors" as they preferred to be called, to pubs and clubs developed a philosophy of "control the doors, control the floors". This involved using extreme violence, bribes and intimidation to ensure their men were hired as bouncers. Once in place they either sold drugs on the premises or took a cut from dealers operating inside.

A series of police raids netted 49 bouncers from the Merseyside area, nine of whom had convictions for previous drugs offences, including a director of a private security firm who was caught making narcotics. Twenty- eight of the men also had convictions for violence, including two murders and three attempted murders. Last year rival doormen teams clashed, resulting in several near-fatal shootings, including a drive-by gun attack on the home of a bouncer and a stabbing.

In Newcastle the relationship between drugs and bouncers is more blurred. Rather than criminals directly employing the doormen, they are more likely to force security staff to pay a "tax" for working and to allow "approved" dealers to operate unhindered in the clubs. At a series of warehouse raves door staff were so well organised that punters could buy different drugs from different sales points around the venue.

The Home Office research, published last month, found that doormen sometimes held extra stocks of drugs for the dealers and that female pushers were becoming more popular because they were less likely to be searched. In a recent trial in London a woman bouncer was jailed for two-and-a-half years for supplying ecstasy and amphetamines from a club toilet.

Anthony Tucker, one of three men executed in December 1995 by rival dealers as they sat in a Range Rover on a remote farm track in Essex, owned a security firm which supplied bouncers to nightclubs in London's East End and south Essex - from where he controlled his drugs empire. His doormen worked at the club where Essex teenager Leah Betts allegedly bought her last ecstasy tablet.

Club owners and bouncers are well aware that there are big bucks to be made from drug sales - a survey last year found that 90 per cent of 517 people in London questioned at dance events said they planned to take drugs that evening. About half were going to take cannabis and ecstasy, about 40 per cent amphetamines, and 16 per cent LSD.

Successive home secretaries have backed off from taking decisive action about the bouncer problem, consistently calling for "more research" or "further consultation", despite recommendations by a committee of MPs, the police and the bulk of the security industry for compulsive registration and vetting.

Jack Straw appears to be slowly edging towards legislation. In the meantime the Government has agreed to bring in new powers from the beginning of next May to allow local authorities to almost instantly close down venues where drug dealing is going on. Until now club and pub owners could drag out court action for several years before having their licence revoked.

Superintendent Martin Jauch, head of operations at the Metropolitan Police's Clubs and Vice Unit, which has overall responsibility for policy on licensing in London, admits this is a "draconian" piece of legislation, but believes it will be a powerful incentive for dance venues to clean up their acts. He adds that only a "lunatic" would attempt to stop the consumption of all drugs. "We are trying to deal with organised, overt drug dealing," he says.

There are signs that club owners are becoming more responsible - there are currently about 6,000 registered bouncers in the capital and increasing numbers of local authorities have set up door supervisor registration schemes which attempt to civilise bouncers by training them and vetting their criminal records.

At the Ministry of Sound club in south-east London, the management has attempted to break the link between local drug dealers and door staff by bussing in half of the bouncers from the West Midlands. The team comes down on Thursday and returns on Sunday.

Club owners are more than willing to tell tales about their rivals - provided they can keep their names out of the paper. "Most clubs around here have agreements with drug dealers," says one south London venue manager. "The entrance fee might be pounds 10 for a punter and pounds 500 for a dealer. Once inside, the doormen will protect them." Another common trick is for doormen to confiscate drugs from the public, sell it to a dealer inside, who then recycles the goods, explains another.

At a well-known London club the "resident" dealer is said to supply the manager with his nightly fix. "Put bluntly," said one head doorman, "some owners are bent so they want a dodgy security firm - the punters also expect to be able to buy drugs in the clubs, so it's all part of the business."