Is the War on Drugs Turning Into A War on Raves?
By MSNBC – Thursday September 5 2002
IT’S HARDLY the first time that a particular drug has been associated with a particular type of music. In the 1920s, jazz was associated with marijuana. In the 1960s, rock music was linked with marijuana use and LSD. And in the disco era of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the prevalent drug was cocaine. Still, no one ever tried to pass a law that seemed to target the music more than the drugs. That is, critics say, until now.
During recent Congressional hearings on the drug MDMA, more commonly known as Ecstasy, raves were mentioned time and again as places where the drug was most prevalent. Too often, lawmakers found, parents are unaware that raves-often promoted as alcohol-free dance parties-aren’t always safe places for their children. As the number of news reports of teenagers dying from Ecstasy overdoses continues to grow, some lawmakers decided to act. The result is two bills moving through Congress that aim to hold promoters responsible for drug use at their events.
When word got out about these two proposals, it traveled fast. Washington D.C.-based rave promoters, Buzzlife Productions, leapt right into action and organized an online petition against both bills. In just five days, the group had collected 10,000 signatures. At last count, about 20,000 people had signed it.
Amanda Huie, director of public relations for Buzzlife Productions says she’s all for cracking down on drugs. But these two new proposals, she says, seem more designed to crack down on legal raves than on illegal drugs. Rave organizers such as Huie take issue with lawmakers defining a rave simply as a place to do Ecstasy.
Huie defines a rave simply as a massive dance party held in an environment designed to provide a sensory overload of loud music, pulsing beats and flashing lights. “Take a club and subtract the dress code. Take a concert and add a dance floor. Take a family reunion and remove the baggage, that’s kind of what a rave is,” says Huie.
Perhaps most significantly, raves are the only consistent venues where electronic music fans can go to dance to music spun by the top techno, industrial and house music DJs. This is why First Amendment advocates oppose the bills. They claim that specifically targeting raves will effectively silence the music associated with a dance scene. That, say bill critics such as the American Civil Liberties Union, violates the right to freedom of expression. Huie describes it as “musical genocide as drug control. It’s like going after hip hop as a form of gun control.”
These new proposals, rave promoters and enthusiasts say, expands the war on drugs to a war on raves. Existing drug laws, critics of the bills say, should be more than sufficient to address the problem of drug abuse. The Ecstasy Anti-Proliferation Act, passed in October 2000, for instance, has already strengthened the penalties for dealing in Ecstasy and increased funding for drug education programs. These new proposals, they say, merely threaten legitimate businesses. Lawmakers say that’s not their intent. They say that as long as raves are run by people who aren’t promoting them as places to do drugs, or where drug use will be tolerated, rave organizers have nothing to fear.
TOO MUCH MISINFORMATION?
Are rave enthusiasts over-reacting? The bills’ supporters think so. The first bill is a Senate proposal known as Reducing Americans Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act of 2002 (or the RAVE Act). It aims to close loopholes in the so-called “crack-house law.” The crack house law allows property owners to be prosecuted for any illegal drug use on their property. But the law only applies to ongoing illegal drug activity that occurs inside a building.
In recent years, prosecutors have tried to use the crack house law against rave organizers. But because raves are often held outdoors, and often are one-night only affairs, the law doesn’t apply in all cases. Bill proponents say the RAVE bill would make the crack house law easier for law enforcement to use against rave organizers who promote or condone drug use.
Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) sponsored the RAVE act. According to Biden’s staff, there’s a lot of misinformation surrounding the Senate proposal. “We’re not trying to take away people’s right to dance,” says Chip Unruh, Sen. Joseph Biden’s deputy press secretary. “We don’t think people should be able to profit from selling drugs to kids.”
The RAVE bill, Biden’s staff says, simply tweaks the existing crack-house law. It is very specific and intended to be used only against property owners whose behavior clearly breaks the drug laws. “We set the bar very high,” says Unruh. “We only go after the worst of the worst.”
The second proposal is a House bill called Clean, Learn, Education, Abolish, Neutralize, and Undermine Production (CLEAN-UP) of Methamphetamines Act of 2002. Sponsored by Congressman Doug Ose (R-California), it would amend the Controlled Substances Act to set penalties for “promoting an entertainment event where the promoter knows that a controlled substance will be used or distributed in violation of specified law.” CLEAN-UP’s critics say the wording is so vague it could cover any event from a rock concert to a campus pep rally.
According to Ose’s press secretary, Yier Shi, its vagueness is intentional. “Our whole objective is to give law enforcement as much authority as possible,” says Shi. “The only people liable when there’s drug use at an event are users and owners of property. We feel there are times when the promoters are just as responsible. We want to give law enforcement the leeway to crack down as much as possible.”
Critics fear the House bill would have a chilling effect on all forms of public entertainment. Both Sen. Biden and Congressman Ose have been hearing from concert promoters in every musical genre. And their staff is fielding a lot of hypothetical questions. For instance, suppose a college promotes a spring break concert. Would knowing that surveys and studies have shown drug abuse to be a problem on campuses across the country make the college liable for any student drug use under these new laws?
“Hopefully law enforcement will use good judgment,” says Shi.
IS GOVERNMENT GOING TOO FAR?
A New Orleans case, however, suggests battlefronts in the war on drugs aren’t always carefully thought out. A New Orleans rave promoter was prosecuted using the “crack-house” act in August 2001. As a result of the case, federal law enforcement banned masks, glow sticks and pacifiers as drug paraphernalia. Law enforcement officers said glow sticks were used to enhance the effects of Ecstasy by dancers and claimed that people on Ecstasy clamp down on the pacifiers to reduce teeth clenching, a side effect of the drug.
On February 4, 2002, U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Porteous struck down that ban. Porteous agreed that government has a legitimate interest in trying to stop illegal drug use. But, he said, the government didn’t have the right to ban obviously legal items just because a few people use them to heighten the effects of an illegal substance.
“When the First Amendment right of Free Speech is violated by the government in the name of the War on Drugs, and when that First Amendment violation is arguably not even helping in the War on Drugs, it is the duty of the courts to enjoin (stop) the government from violating the rights of innocent people,” Porteous said.
Of course, under the proposed laws, providing music is not a criminal act; providing an environment in which illegal drugs are used is. But, as Huie points out, the government can’t keep drugs out of prisons, so what chance do rave promoters, or any concert promoters for that matter, have of making their events entirely drug-free? During the New Orleans rave trial, attorneys for the defense argued that “Knowing that no concert provider can guarantee the complete absence of drugs, the only way to avoid criminal liability would be to cancel electronic music concerts altogether.”
And that is really what those opposed to these bills fear. While lawmakers say it’s not their intent to put a stop to all raves, their proposals may ultimately have that effect. Fearing prosecution if anyone at their events uses drugs, would-be rave promoters may think twice before organizing such events. And property owners may decide not to rent out their land or buildings to accommodate raves. All these fears may be unfounded, but electronic music fans and rave enthusiasts worry that their scene will disappear.
If these now mainstream all-night dance parties are driven back underground, however, there may be other causes for concern. In California, a law passed after a young man died at a rave requires that all raves be run as safely as possible. As a result, most raves offer tight security, onsite emergency medical care, “chill” rooms for cooling off, and water for sale or for free. If the raves move back underground, there’s no guarantee any of these safety considerations will be met.
The House and the Senate will take up both proposals for consideration and action when the full Congress returns from the August recess.