People and dance floors in Malta | Karen Mamo, Dr Giulia Zampini

While the law is becoming less punitive towards drug users, and particularly cannabis users, there is still a general reluctance to adopt a public health approach towards other substances such as cocaine and ecstasy to make their use safe

Malta boasts a prolific nightlife and clubbing scene which originated in the 80s and early 90s. Bars and nightclubs proliferated in Paceville, St Julians, the entertainment hub of the island.

Meanwhile, raves going by the name of SIN Parties were being organised and later on, those who attended these parties started to shift towards larger events, such as the popular Tribu and LoveSexy. Since then, the electronic dance music scene in Malta has continued to evolve. Aside from the concentration of nightclubs in St Julians, several other clubs established themselves in different parts of the island.

Overall, dancefloors in Malta embody a parallel cultural space of dedicated artists and loyal followers, changing, innovating and adapting over time, whilst directly contributing to an estimated 7.9% of Malta’s GDP.

Drugs in Malta

The most recent European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction report on Malta

(2019) used data from the 2013 general population survey to conservatively estimate that around 4.3% of people aged 18-25 have used cannabis in their lifetime. Lifetime prevalence of cigarette smoking in Malta has decreased over the past decade, but the prevalence of alcohol and heavy drinking is higher than the European average. While the average age of first use of alcohol is not reported in this study, it is likely to be younger than 15.

Lifetime use of other drugs including MDMA/ecstasy, cocaine, amphetamines, heroin, LSD, and other new psychoactive substances stood at around 1.4%, with ecstasy being the most popular among these substances. However, we know that since 2013, cocaine’s popularity in Europe has been on the rise, as have cocaine- related health risks. Substance use, and particularly cannabis, tends to be more prevalent among young people aged 18-24, with the average age of first use being 19.

A new law introduced in 2015 has sought to divert people away from criminal courts for simple possession of a controlled substance. As such, since 2015, an increasing number of people caught in possession of illicit substances have been diverted to a tribunal chaired by a Justice Commissioner and are usually subject to a fine.

The National Report on the Drug Situation and Responses in Malta (2022) reported that possession arraignments had decreased in the period between 2017 and 2021, possibly as a result of the combined effect of the new law and the COVID-19 pandemic. The most common substance was cannabis, followed by cocaine, heroin, and MDMA/ecstasy.

While this report presents some useful data, for example on the fluctuations of levels of purity of some street-bought substances, there is a need for more and better-quality data, particularly on substance use in nightlife and festival contexts. Such data could extend beyond use patterns or most popular drugs, to include analysis of substances’ chemical composition (also known as drug checking) along with a better understanding of the costs of dealing with drugs in nightlife, from law enforcement to medical resourcing and expenditures.

While the law is becoming less punitive towards drug users, and particularly cannabis users, there is still a general reluctance to adopt a public health approach towards other substances such as cocaine and ecstasy to make their use safer.           

The joys of clubbing

Narratives from the dance floor are rarely given much attention. With the People and Dancefloors project, we aim to change that by focusing on the relationship between people, dance floors, music, drugs, risk, and pleasure. Representing the voices of a small group of clubbers and people in the industry between the ages of 24 and 50, People and Dancefloors Malta invited the leading protagonists of the Maltese clubbing scene, its people, to share their stories.

Participants to the People and Dancefloors Malta project felt that music, clubbing and drug-taking had an overall positive effect on their lives, allowing them to have fun, make connections with others, nurture a passion for music and become part of a community. However, most participants explained that they rarely speak about this part of their life with their work colleagues or parents. Participants often felt misunderstood by others, as mainstream depictions of clubbers are largely inaccurate.

The main reason is attributed to the negative stereotypes attached to people who attend electronic dance music events and the risk of being picked up by the police for consuming an illicit substance. Participants highlighted the importance of feeling ‘safe’ in the club environment.

When considering that the average age of our project participants was 30 years old, it becomes clear that identity and social status are in conflict. People constantly negotiate between their ‘real’ self and their ‘public’ persona. When considering the potential criminal consequences people may face when consuming an illicit substance, a golden unspoken rule exists: ‘What happens on the dancefloor stays on the dancefloor.’

Largely misrepresented in mainstream media and misunderstood by society, people who are involved in the electronic dance music scene told us about the myriad ways in which the problems they face arise from lack of knowledge and stigma. Harm reduction practices in electronic music spaces, from free drinking water being made available at clubs and festivals, to educational, warning messages about commonly consumed substances, to drug checking, available in many European countries, are absent in Malta.

Can we make nightlife and clubbing safer for all?

If you would like to engage with this question and learn more about people and dance floors in Malta, we will be showcasing our project findings during an event hosted by the University of Malta, Valletta campus, on 6 October at 6pm. For more information and free tickets, visit uk-and-malta-tickets-682137019187