The Chill Is On

Fighting raves, squelching speech


When Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) introduced his anti-rave legislation, critics warned that it could have a chilling effect on unpopular speech, especially criticism of the war on drugs. They were proven right barely a month after President Bush signed Biden's Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, a.k.a. the Reducing Americans' Vulnerability to Ecstasy (RAVE) Act.

In Billings, Montana, a May 30 rock concert sponsored by two drug policy reform groups was canceled on the day of the show after a local representative of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) told the venue's owners they could be liable under the new law if anyone smoked pot at the event. The RAVE Act prohibits "knowingly opening, maintaining, managing, controlling, renting, leasing, making available for use, or profiting from any place for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing, or using any controlled substance." Violators are subject to $250,000 or more in civil penalties, a criminal fine of up to $500,000, and a prison sentence of up to 20 years.

The manager of the Eagles Lodge in Billings, where the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and Students for a Sensible Drug Policy planned to hold a fund-raising concert, said a local DEA agent approached her on May 30, waving a copy of the law. "He freaked me out," she told the Drug Reform Coordination Network. "He didn't tell us we couldn't have the event, but he showed me the law and told us what could happen if we did. I talked to our trustees, they talked to our lawyers, and our lawyers said not to risk it, so we canceled."

Jeff Sweetin, special agent in charge of the DEA's Rocky Mountain Division, defended the warning in an interview with The Billings Outpost. But he conceded that "it certainly doesn't look very good." Attempting to improve appearances, the DEA announced in a June 20 press release that it is "committed to responsible enforcement of this law, which will shield innocent businesses from criminal liability for incidental drug use by patrons."