War on drugs hits the dance floor

Monday, July 2, 2001

Hard, rapidly pounding music bolstered with swirling psychedelic lights, videos, smoke and pyrotechnics. Separate “cooling down” rooms offering partygoers some respite from poorly air-conditioned dance floors. Easily available club drugs and paraphernalia such as candy containers, glow sticks and pacifiers.

That’s how the Drug Enforcement Administration characterizes a typical rave, a spontaneous late-night dance party catering to mostly 12- to 25-year-olds. The entire scene, the DEA contends, not only supports but nurtures an atmosphere of rampant use of club drugs, particularly ecstasy.

The DEA’s description irks Dustianne North who discovered rave culture about nine years ago, she says, at a moment in her life when she craved friends who enjoyed dance music and late-night parties.

North, now 29 and a doctoral candidate in social policy at the University of California in Los Angeles, says the DEA’s description hardly matches the culture she knows and studies for her doctoral thesis. She says she’s also discouraged by the zeal with which prosecutors have targeted raves, often using laws originally created to shut down crack houses.

In recent months:

  • A federal grand jury indicted owners of Club La Vela in Panama City, Fla., on charges of operating a crack house. Sheriff’s deputies claim that their raids on the club and other rave venues led to the confiscation of enormous amounts of ecstasy, LSD and cocaine.
  • Owners of the State Place Theater, a rave club in New Orleans, pleaded guilty to charges of operating a crack house. They agreed to pay a $100,000 fine and to ban from future events such rave-related items as pacifiers, glow sticks, dust masks and Vicks Vapor Rub.
  • Officials in Orange County, Fla., instituted a 60-day “Dance Hall Moratorium” prohibiting new dance venues from opening until they could work out a new curfew law and felony background checks on club owners.

North doesn’t deny that some raves mix dangerous drugs and dangerous people, but she said most raves are innocuous gatherings of people who love music and dancing.

“There are problems, and, yes, we have issues to deal with,” North said in a telephone interview. “But we have no support to deal with those issues. Kids wouldn’t want to do this if mainstream culture was giving them what they need,” she said. “Taking this very black-and-white drug war and making it a war on dance groups is not at all helping in addressing what the problems really are.”

The effort to prosecute rave organizers also worries civil libertarians who view such regulations as cultural cleansing machines. The American Civil Liberties Union, in particular, faults the prosecutors for curbing what it considers a legitimate form of assembly.

“Holding club owners and promoters of raves criminally liable for what some people may do at these events is no different from arresting the stadium owners and promoters of a Rolling Stones concert or a rap show because some concert-goers may be smoking or selling marijuana,” said Graham Boyd, director of the ACLU’s Drug Policy Litigation Project.

“If the government is successful in shutting down raves, what’s to stop them from applying this tactic to other music genres, such as hip-hop, heavy metal and jazz, where drug use is known to exist?” Boyd said.

But officials say they are targeting drugs not dance culture.

The city of Chicago, for example, recently passed an ordinance that will send building owners and managers to jail if they intentionally let a property be used for raves at which controlled substances are used, distributed, stored or made. The jail terms range from 2 weeks to 6 months.

“We aren’t looking to stop dancing or keep people from having a good time or going to parties,” John Roe, a city of Chicago lobbyist, told the Chicago Tribune. “But we want to ensure that the drugs aren’t there.”

Donnie Marshall of the Drug Enforcement Administration told the U.S. Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control last March that the push for enforcement comes in the wake of alarming proliferation of ecstasy use. He cited reports from the Drug Abuse Warning Network showing that emergency-room incidents rose from 1,143 in 1998 to 2,850 in 1999 while as many as 27 deaths could be attributed to ecstasy between 1994 and 1999.

Just last year, the DEA seized more than 3 million tablets of the drug, Marshall said. And many of the raids took place at raves, he said.

“Club drugs have become such an integral part of the rave circuit that there no longer appears to be an attempt to conceal their use,” Marshall testified. “The fact that many teens do not perceive these drugs as harmful or dangerous, make the rave experience a truly threatening development.”

But Douglas Rushkoff, a professor of media culture at New York University, says most raves aren’t about drugs.

“In a world where most every authentic expression of youth culture is commodified by a media conglomerate and sold back to teens at the mall, rave culture stands as one of the few, relatively uncorrupted outposts for America’s kids,” he wrote in his book Coercion: Why We Listen to What “They” Say.

The drug itself, officially known as MDMA, existed long before the advent of raves in the late 1980s. Created by Merck Pharmaceutical company in 1912, MDMA was rediscovered in the late 1970s by a researcher in California. The drug gradually became popular because of its ability to induce empathetic feelings, and was used, for a time, in psychotherapy.

In the early 1980s, the drug was dubbed ecstasy and became especially popular among club-goers. In 1985, the drug was made illegal and classified as Schedule I, meaning that it could no longer be used for medical purposes.

And that has meant an end to effective research about the drug, researchers explained last February at the State of Ecstasy Conference sponsored by the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation.

Dr. Charles Grob, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, said research is needed not only to explore possible therapeutic use but also to understand how it affects young people.

“Often, when kids are taking ecstasy, they are not sure of what they are taking — it worries me that so many young people are putting themselves in a position of unnecessary risk,” Grob said at the conference. “Reputable institutions can’t get this stuff to study it, which is ridiculous.”

Attempts to prosecute rave organizers are hardly the only enforcement efforts that have raised the eyebrows of free-speech experts and researchers alike.

Early versions of the Ecstasy Anti-Proliferation Act, which Congress passed last year to toughen penalties against those who manufacture and distribute club drugs, included provisions banning online drug recipes and certain information about Schedule I drugs.

Alan St. Pierre, director of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, said his and other groups successfully lobbied against the online ban to keep talk open about ecstasy and other drugs.

“They’re really trying to close the conversation,” St. Pierre said in a telephone interview.

St. Pierre also denounced what he described as a hypocrisy of enforcement. He noted that many of the same activities that reportedly happen in raves, also happen in bars where alcohol is served. By targeting raves and not bars, St. Pierre said, prosecutors and lawmakers create something akin to Jim Crow laws, ordinances designed to segregate cultures.

North agreed, saying that the elimination of rave culture could produce something much worse in the future.

“The mainstream doesn’t accept the culture, so it pushes it into these unsafe illegal venues,” she said. “But even if you wanted to stamp it out you couldn’t. Even if you did, it would create something new for the kids to do.”