Rave on: the Grateful Dead and a new generation

Sunday, July 28, 2002

“Casey Jones” wasn’t high on life.

The speeding engineer in that classic Grateful Dead song was fueled by cocaine. And the “long strange trip” mentioned in “Truckin’” was not about a difficult commute to San Francisco.

Drug lyrics in Grateful Dead songs? No surprise there. No other band in the history of rock music was as closely associated with the use of marijuana, acid and hallucinogens as the Grateful Dead. Their concerts were anything but a drug-free zone.

Despite this clear linkage between illegal drug use and the Grateful Dead, Congress didn’t mess with the Dead. To the contrary, many public officials celebrated this unique band and its culture. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who was described in the National Journal as “the Senate’s head Deadhead,” once invited the band to the Senate Dining Room, where South Carolina Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond shook hands with band leader Jerry Garcia. After Garcia’s death, San Francisco City Hall flew its flags at half-staff.

The nation’s leaders understood the band’s association with the so-called “drug culture,” but also knew of the Grateful Dead’s iconic status with an entire generation of Americans. It would have been unthinkable to try to address drug use at Dead concerts by passing legislation that would hold a rock-concert promoter responsible if he “reasonably ought to know” that someone will use illegal drugs during a show. That kind of law would have put a severe crimp in the long career of the Grateful Dead.

It also would have been unfair. After all, while Dead concerts certainly attract some people who use drugs, many others enjoy the music straight. A law like that would mean a promoter wouldn’t dare book a band like the Grateful Dead, depriving thousands of law-abiding concert goers of the concert experience just because some attendees smoke dope. No sane legislator – particularly those with tie-dye roots – would ever try to cut off the music.

Yet that’s exactly what some congressmen are striving to do to another generation of music fans. Rep. Doug Ose, R-Calif., has introduced the Clean, Learn, Educate, Abolish, Neutralize and Undermine Production of Methamphetamines (CLEAN-UP) Act. The bill is intended to prevent the use of Ecstasy and other illegal drugs at all-night dance parties called raves. As is so often the case with bills that infringe on First Amendment freedoms, the intent behind this bill – and a similar bill in the U.S. Senate, sponsored by Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.; Orrin Hatch, R-Utah; Charles Grassley, R-Iowa; and, yes, Leahy – is positive, but the execution is clumsy and overreaching.

The House bill, which has 67 sponsors, would punish the promoter of any entertainment event “that takes place under circumstances where the promoter knows or reasonably ought to know” that illegal drugs will be used. This would have the effect of punishing the promoter of anything from a sporting event to a poetry reading for the illegal actions of audience members.

The Senate boasts a somewhat more measured bill. The Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy (RAVE) Act would only punish promoters who stage an event with the intent that illegal drugs be used.

Still, that’s not much of a safeguard. While the burden is on the state to prove intent, the cost of defending against such charges would put most promoters – guilty or innocent – out of business.

This legislation holds implications for any promoter of public entertainment events. Absent a strip search by the ticket taker, how can any promoter ensure that audience members aren’t using illegal substances?

The distribution of Ecstasy poses a real health threat to young people, but there are ways to address criminal behavior without short-circuiting the culture of young people and their right to assemble.

The heart of the problem, of course, is that middle-aged and older legislators don’t have a clue about raves. They can’t imagine young people spending an entire evening dancing to throbbing electronic music without taking illegal drugs.

They forget so easily that their own parents – who saw the world in terms of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman – failed to see the romance of three days of sitting in the mud at Max Yasgur’s farm listening to loud rock music. Clearly those young people at Woodstock were up to no good.

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