by Geov Parrish
November 13, 2003
First Published in Eat the State!
Hollywood has a long tradition of films in which the ridiculous plot serves only as the flimsy excuse for the soundtrack. And so it was that even twenty years ago, the 1984 movie "Footloose" featured an idiotic plot in which the parents of a high school rebel (a young Kevin Bacon) move to a Utah town and Bacon discovers that it has outlawed -- can you believe it? -- dancing.
Fast forward twenty years. To virtually no attention, this year Congress passed an onerous new anti-drug bill -- one whose explicit effect is to outlaw certain types of dancing.
Welcome to the RAVE Act.
Passed last March, when, two days before the vote, Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden attached it as a rider to a inevitably successful bill establishing a national warning system for child abductions, RAVE takes its place in the discouraging new tradition of ridiculous legislative acronyms: the Reducing Americans' Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act. (The bill it passed within was the PROTECT Act, with its own tortured acronym.)
And how, you might ask, is Big Bro' helping protect us vulnerable Americans from this demon high?
From RAVE's text: it is now illegal to "manage or control any place, whether permanently or temporarily, either as an owner, lessee, agent, employee, occupant, or mortgagee, and knowingly and intentionally rent, lease, profit from, or make available for use, with or without compensation, the place for the purpose of unlawfully manufacturing, storing, distributing, or using a controlled substance."
The idea is to hold concert promoters, hall owners, even stage managers liable for any illicit drug use on the premises. If someone throws a rave, three thousand kids show up, and one is pulled over when leaving and found to have contraband in his back pocket, not only is he in deep caca, but the promoter could face felony charges, 20 years in prison, and a quarter-million in fines. But profit isn't necessary; if you throw a party and your neighbor calls in a complaint about your loud music, you could face the same.
Last year, when RAVE was first introduced, its criminal provisions specifically targeted raves, arousing enormous opposition -- so much so that Senate Judiciary chairman Patrick Leahy withdrew his co-sponsorship of the bill. But in the re-introduced version that became law, the word "rave" never appears. Instead, RAVE was slipped in as an amendment to laws governing crack houses.
The intentionally vague and overbroad language is part of what's helping the RAVE Act work -- in the short term. It allows prosecutors and the Drug Enforcement Agency broad latitude in deciding who to go after and how harshly to do it; that, in turn, is scaring off prospective promoters and event insurers. Already, the horror stories are accumulating.
The DEA's enforcement priorities under RAVE are likely to mirror a now-notorious case in New Orleans, wherein the State Palace Theatre -- which had hosted approximately 50 raves -- had a strict no-tolerance anti-drug policy, with extensive security, posting of numerous signs, and so on.
Nonetheless, DEA agents managed to make drug purchases at "four or five" of the events. Half the purchases tested positive for banned substances (and the other half, buyer beware, didn't). But rather than going after the sellers, the DEA is going after the theatre's owner himself, a local businessman with no criminal history.
Or consider the Billings saga. On May 30, a DEA agent showed up at the Eagle Lodge in Billings, Montana, where a benefit concert for local anti-drug groups was to be held that night. According to the lodge's manager, the agent literally waved a copy of the RAVE Act in the air while threatening the lodge if anyone was found with a joint at the concert. The lodge reluctantly cancelled the show.
The Billings case highlights another undercurrent of RAVE -- its selective use, and potential for political use against opponents of drug policy. If bands, promoters, or sponsoring organizations are on record opposing laws -- Hempfest comes to mind -- the Billings incident suggests that the DEA will use RAVE to oppose free speech as well as drugs.
Biden's sponsorship underscores that the War on Drugs is a bipartisan affair, and why not? Long before 9/11, the Drug War was the wedge with which government at all levels has passed laws that expand the power of, uh, government. (When was the last time government passed a law reducing the power of government?) And so it is that laws like RAVE venture into territory having little to do with drug use itself.
Setting aside the question of whether drugs like MDMA (ecstacy) should be illegal in the first place, the net effect of RAVE isn't to lessen their usage -- it's to shut down public concerts, inevitably of shows whose music (and fans) legislators have little interest in. RAVE is a tacit admission of the drug war's failure; by going after owners or promoters who may well be anti-drug themselves, it's an admission that people determined to use illicit substances are not themselves being deterred by the existing draconian laws.
That being the case, if fear of RAVE becomes a serious impediment to the hosting of events where drug use takes place -- which is most any concert, when you get down to it -- the drug use will still take place elsewhere. People will find a way.
Only the dancing will be shut down.
Geov Parrish is a Seattle-based columnist and reporter for the Seattle Weekly, In These Times and Eat the State! This article first appeared in Eat The State!