Is It the Music?

The crackdown on raves continues.

Sen. Joseph Biden's anti-rave law is only a few months old, but other drug warriors in Congress are already trying to improve upon it. Two bills would make it easier to hold event sponsors liable for drug use by their guests. And unlike the final version of Biden's legislation, both explicitly target raves.

When Biden introduced the bill that became this year's Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, the Delaware Democrat called it the Reducing Americans' Vulnerability to Ecstasy (RAVE) Act. The "findings" section began: "Each year tens of thousands of young people are initiated into the drug culture at 'rave' parties or events (all-night, alcohol-free dance parties typically featuring loud, pounding dance music)." The bill cited the characteristic signs of "rave culture," including "club drugs," chill rooms, neon glow sticks, massage oils, pacifiers, and menthol nasal inhalers.

The bill's opponents complained that Biden seemed to be attacking a particular genre of music and the lifestyle associated with it. He responded by changing the bill's name and taking out the language mentioning raves. But he left in the part that threatens people who "knowingly and intentionally" make a place available for drug use with up to 20 years in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in civil and criminal fines. The bill passed as a conference-committee amendment to a law ostensibly aimed at preventing child abductions, which President Bush signed on April 30.

The first known use of Biden's law involved a fund-raising concert for two drug policy reform groups, Students for a Sensible Drug Policy and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. The concert, which was scheduled for May 30 at the Eagles Lodge in Billings, Montana, was canceled after a local agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) told the owners they could be held liable if anyone at the concert lit up a joint.

Embarrassed by the incident, the DEA blamed it on the agent's misinterpretation of the law. It promised "responsible enforcement" that would respect First Amendment rights and "shield innocent businesses from criminal liability for incidental drug use by patrons." In response to questions from Biden, Acting DEA Administrator William B. Simpkins said the requirements of "knowledge" and "intent" mean that "legitimate event promoters" should not "be concerned that they will be prosecuted simply based upon or just because of illegal patron behavior."

While critics of the war on drugs are worried that the DEA won't keep its word, Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) seems to be worried that it will. Late last month he introduced the Ecstasy Awareness Act of 2003, under which anyone who "profits monetarily from a rave or similar electronic dance event, knowing or having reason to know that the unlawful use or distribution of a controlled substance occurs at the rave or similar event" is subject to a fine of up to $ 500,000 and a prison sentence of up to 20 years.

By eliminating the intent requirement and watering down the knowledge requirement, this bill essentially would criminalize raves, where there is arguably always "reason to know" that someone is using drugs. And it would apply not just to sponsors but to anyone who "profits monetarily" from a rave. As Drug Policy Alliance lobbyist Bill Piper recently told The Austin Chronicle, "It would include Kinko's if they made fliers or anyone who delivers food or even the DJ. They're all making money from the event."

So far Pascrell's bill has only a few co-sponsors. Piper is more concerned about a provision in the Clean, Learn, Educate, Abolish, Neutralize, and Undermine Production (CLEAN-UP) of Methamphetamines Act, which has more than 100 co-sponsors. The provision would establish a penalty of up to nine years in prison for "promoters of commercial drug-oriented entertainment." It applies to anyone who "knowingly promotes any rave, dance, music, or other entertainment event that takes place under circumstances where the promoter knows or reasonably ought to know that a controlled substance will be used."

Both of these bills are broad in the sense that they cover many people who are not involved in distributing drugs (and who may even be taking steps to discourage drug use). But they are also narrower than Biden's law, which applies to "any place," in the locations they cover. Pascrell seems to have a specific objection to electronic dance music, while the CLEAN-UP bill applies only to "entertainment." Having fun, in other words, is a crucial part of the offense.

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