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Anti-rave law sparks concern on overreach

Imagine a concert in which a few people in the audience are furtively smoking joints. Suddenly, drug agents swarm in, arrest the smokers, and shut down the concert. The owner of the venue, after being fined $250,000 in civil liabilities, is forced to close the establishment. How feasible is this scenario?

After the April 10 passage of Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, aimed to fight drug use at raves and clubs, drug policy advocates worry that this situation could go from absurdity to reality. The law, sponsored by Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware was originally called the Reducing Americansí Vulnerability to Ecstasy (RAVE) Act and stalled in the Senate last year in the face of mounting public opposition. Biden then reintroduced it with a different name by slipping it into the popular Amber Alert bill, and it passed without any real debate.

The practice of punishing promoters and business owners for the acts of their patrons can be traced to the Controlled Substance Act of 1986. Widely known as the " crack house statute, " this legislation made it possible for prosecutors to imprison organizers who " know or reasonably ought to know " that drugs will be used at an event. The new law adds a civil liability clause to this statute and expands it to include one-night events and outdoor events.

The act is meant to target the " rogue elements " in the rave and club scene that produce events for the express purpose of distributing drugs, and, according to a Biden spokesperson, the law maintains an extremely high standard for proving this.

But one concern is that the broad law could be used to suppress cultural and political events antithetical to the Bush administration. According to Darrel Rogers of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), the first invocation of the act, on May 30, " confirmed our worst fears. " The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) shut down a Billings, Montana, benefit concert for SSDP and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). According to those groups, the manager of the venue canceled the event after the DEA showed up at her office that day with a copy of the act and threatened her with a $250,000 fine if anyone was caught using marijuana at the event.

Rich Lupo, owner of Lupoís and the Met Café in Providence, however, had not heard of the " RAVE " law before I contacted him, and neither had his lawyer. Lupo says the use of the bill against normal clubs with incidental drug use " sounds so un-American, so against constitutional rights, I just canít imagine it being used. "

The Anti-Proliferation Act might push drug use further underground and discourage emergency-service calls in the case of drug misuse. While the act might give law enforcement a tool, itís more likely that people will continue enjoying music Ė sometimes with drugs Ė until one or the other is eradicated. At any rate, the conspicuously overarching nature of the law isnít encouraging.

Bidenís spokesperson assures me heís working hard to investigate the Montana case. While drug war critics remain unmollified, most club owners remain unconcerned, since the law hasnít yet been used to shut down such a venue. As of now, the most adverse effects of the law remain hypothetical.

Issue Date: July 11 - 17, 2003
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