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[whitespace] Rave Raving Mad

New anti-rave bills working their way through Congress are meant to stick it to the makers of illegal drugs, but music promoters say they'll be a nightmare for civil rights

By Mike Connor

WE ALL KNOW that youth culture has already gone mostly underground. Even the most respected promoters run into trouble putting on anything remotely edgy for the under-21 crowd, and the word "rave" in particular has become a dirty word over the last decade.

But you ain't seen nothing yet. If a couple of extreme pieces of legislation being considered by Congress go through, even that cute little sock hop you've been dreaming about having could end with SWAT teams crashing through windows armed with high-powered odor-eaters and a warrant for your arrest. All because someone at your event was doing drugs--even if you didn't actually know about it. After you pay a fine in accordance with Title 18 of the United States Code, we'll see ya when you get out of the slammer--in about nine years or so.

That's an exaggeration of course--SWAT teams aren't equipped with odor eaters. But the proposed legislation is real, and although it's couched in broader legislation attempting to battle methamphetamine use nationwide, the vague wording and draconian penalties have many promoters worried about the future of live entertainment as a whole.

Here in Santa Cruz, local promoters fear the new statute will further damage an already hobbled live music scene. The police, meanwhile, say they don't even need these new enforcement tools--they've had no problems breaking up the old full-moon parties up in Davenport, for instance. So the question becomes: why does anyone need these new laws? And are they worth the creepy implications for constitutional rights?

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The X Files: Three pieces of federal legislation aimed at curbing raves are currently making their way through Congress.

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Meth Mania

The main bill in question is called H.R. 3782, and has one of those annoyingly clever little acronyms--CLEAN-UP, which stands for Clean, Learn, Educate, Abolish, Neutralize and Undermine Production of Methamphetamines. If passed, the bill would hold promoters responsible for drug use at their events by amending Section 416A of the federal Control Substances Act to read as follows:

    Whoever 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 or distributed in violation of Federal law or the law of the place where the event is held, shall be fined under title 18, United States Code, or imprisoned for not more than 9 years, or both.

The bill, which already has 66 co-sponsors in the House, was drafted by Congressman Doug Ose (R-Calif.) in response to the growing metham phetamine problem. H.R. 3782 is a comprehensive plan to increase funding to police task forces, educational outreach programs and environmental protection programs.

Ose's press secretary, Yier Shi, says that 80 percent of the country's methamphetamines are produced in Northern California, mostly in Sacramento. Closer to home, Santa Cruz Deputy Sheriff Kim Allen calls the meth problem "an epidemic--it's ruining people's lives across the board."

But the bill is also designed to clean up methamphetamine use at entertainment events. Though raves are most commonly associated with ecstasy (and indeed a couple of anti-rave bills target that drug specifically), police also consider them a serious meth problem. According to Shi, police were frustrated by situations where drugs were sold openly at raves.

"Currently if you are knowingly promoting a rave with drug use," Shi says, "the only people who are responsible are the ones with the drugs and the owners of the property."

H.R. 3782 would change all that. Promoters who know or "ought to know" of any type of drug use at their shows--whether it be meth, ecstasy, marijuana or any other controlled substance for that matter--will be held criminally responsible for drug possession or use by anyone in attendance. Granted, there have been cases where event promoters knew of and even promoted drug use at their shows. It's no surprise that they're going to get busted--they're practically asking for it. But most promoters say they aren't promoting drug use at their events (though it may of course happen anyway)--they just want to promote music. This includes everyone from lovey-dovey rave promoters who want everyone to get blissed out on trippy natural highs to the stadium concert promoters who, despite security precautions like mandatory pat-downs, still can't control the actions of every single person in attendance. They're concerned that the language concerning promoters who "reasonably ought to know" about drug use at their shows is alarmingly vague.

Organizations such as the International Association of Assembly Managers--an industrial trade association comprised of more than 3,000 managers of stadiums, arenas, theaters, convention centers, amphitheaters and auditoriums--are actively opposing the section of the bill quoted above. In a letter to James Sensenbrenner, chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary, IAAM attorney Turner D. Madden expresses his concern that the sketchy wording will discourage people from promoting any entertainment events when faced with such broad responsibility and strict penalties.

"It sounds rather ridiculous, but law enforcement officials could charge multiple defendants under Section 416A (the promoter, the arena manager and the others) for one musical event where one instance of drug use occurred at the event because all of them knew or reasonably should have known that one of ten thousand college students would use drugs," writes Madden.

The Enforcement Dilemma

When asked how it's possible to determine which cases should be punished, Shi says, "That's the judgment that law enforcement officers need to make, to prosecute those who knowingly promote drug use."

Not surprisingly, some are skeptical of legislation that requires police to not only enforce laws, but to interpret them as well. "It gives police more latitude to act on a whim or personal prejudices," says local performer/promoter Oliver Brown. "That prejudice manifests itself through deciding which car to pull over, which beggars to menace, which hosts of live music to bully, right on down the line."

Asked if the statute will change the way raves are handled by the police, Deputy Sheriff Allen is doubtful. "No, not really, but I suspect it will be a component of enforcement," he says. "It appears on its face to be a pretty heavy burden to put on a promoter. But even if we don't agree with [federal laws], we have to enforce them."

But there can be some leeway even in federal law. "Penal code section four says you're supposed to enforce the spirit of the law and not the letter of the law," says Allen. "I'm not saying we're not going to enforce it, but I think the sheriff's philosophy aims for what's best for the community."

Still, not everyone may be comfortable with the thought of police enforcing laws based solely on their own discretion. The truth is, however, it's often a fundamental part of the legislative process. Legal experts say it's routine for the legislature to draft laws using very broad language, which are then refined through appeals. Unhappily, not only do people have to get arrested in the first place for this to happen, but somebody also has to appeal a decision and win, which usually costs money. It's a process that, while seemingly lazy or cowboyish on the surface, is nevertheless typical, considering the endless conceivable circumstances of a given type of crime.

The principal issue in this case, though, is the limits (or lack thereof) of third-party liability. IAMM attorney Madden points out that "it is a well settled principal of law in many states that businesses are generally not liable for the criminal acts of third parties, absence a showing of a special relationship or negligence." He cites a parallel case regarding premises liability, Noble v. Los Angeles Dodgers, in which two people were attacked on the way to their car in the parking lot of Dodger Stadium. The couple sued the stadium for insufficient security. They won the case, but an appellate court overturned the decision, saying, "It can be said that in this day and age anyone can foresee or expect that a crime will be committed at any time and at any place in the more populous areas of the country. We understand the law still to require that a plaintiff, in order to establish liability, must prove more than abstract negligence unconnected to the injury."

Rave Drug War Draftees

Similarly, it might also be said that in this day and age, anyone can foresee or expect that a joint will be smoked at any time and at any place in the more populous areas of the country. But under this new legislation, promoters of entertainment events will be responsible for the criminal behavior of others, even if they've taken preventative precautions.

Some promoters say the bill's meth angle is a sham. "The whole idea that the bill would curb meth is simply some moron's idea of making an anti-drug statement," says Martin Tickle, who organizes the annual Cosmik Casbah in Santa Cruz. "I have never heard of meth as a club or rave drug."

Others say it's simply unworkable and, more importantly, unfair. Pulse Productions owner Michael Horne says there would be specific difficulties in Santa Cruz: "It's already challenging enough to host an event where you've got a public assembly. There's a lot of substance use that comes with the business, and it's tough to find the point where you intervene. I host cultural events, just like going to movies. What people do before or after or during these events, I'm not sure how much control or input I should have., because what constitutes reasonable intervention?"

"Why should event promoters suddenly become drug war officers?" asks local promoter Poco of Indagroove. "Although we try to secure our events as much as we can, it is impossible to control every individual's actions."

He says the law would also squelch the efforts of groups like DanceSafe, which provides pill-testing and safety information to rave-goers. "This legislation would make event promoters less likely to allow drug prevention organizations and harm-reduction groups to distribute their information inside an event for fear of self-incrimination," says Poco.

Some promoters think they can steer clear of the law, however. Tickle says he's not worried about H.R. 3782 affecting his event. "The bill would not apply," he says, "as our events have been built on a crowd for whom drugs and alcohol are not primary or secondary reasons for attending. Out mission statement is to offer dance as a celebration of self, spirit and community."

H.R. 3782 has recently been referred to four separate committees in the House for review, and a voting date has not yet been determined. Even if it's passed, it's certainly possible that promoters like Tickle can continue organizing events undisturbed by police. The problem is that if Tickle is right, it won't be long before the party formerly known as "Meth Lab Bonanza" simply changes its name to "A Celebration of our Higher Selves," or something even less tongue-in-cheeky, making it more difficult for police to tell who's doing what. And, as Allen says, "Gray areas are interpreted by the social values and standards of the community."

Although he doesn't think they should necessarily be off the hook completely, Allen sympathizes with the promoters' difficulty of completely eliminating drug use at their events. "I think there's an area of liability with the promoter, but then there's activity which you possibly can't ever abate, at any event. If you can get these drugs in jail, how are you going to keep them out of the general population?

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From the July 24-31, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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