An agent of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) used threats of RAVE Act prosecutions to intimidate the owners of a Billings, Montana, venue into a canceling a combined benefit for the Montana chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (http://www.norml.org) and Students for Sensible Drug Policy (http://www.ssdp.org) last week.
The RAVE Act, now known officially as the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, championed by Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE), was ostensibly aimed at so-called raves, the large electronic music concerts often associated with open drug use, but was so broadly written that opponents argued it could be applied against any event or venue where owners or organizers did not take sufficiently repressive steps to prevent drug use. Opposition to the bill stalled it in the Senate last year, but this year Biden stealthily inserted it into the enormously popular Amber Alert Bill, which passed last month and was signed into law by President Bush.
While the Billings event was advertised as a benefit concert for two local groups interested in drug law reform -- not as a drug-taking orgy -- it still attracted the attention of the DEA. On May 30, the day the event was set to take place, a Billings-based DEA agent showed up at the Eagle Lodge, which had booked the concert. Waving a copy of the RAVE Act in one hand, the agent warned that the lodge could face a fine of $250,000 if someone smoked a joint during the benefit, according to Eagle Lodge manager Kelly, who asked that her last name not be used.
"He freaked me out," Kelly told DRCNet. "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," she said. "I felt bad. I knew the guys in the bands."
Primary event organizer Adam Jones was unavailable for comment, having been arrested and jailed by his probation officer for switching work-study jobs at Montana State University-Billings without first informing him. He is on probation for possession of psychedelic mushrooms. It has been speculated, but not yet confirmed, that the probation officer, described in unprintable terms by several local sources, was responsible for siccing the DEA on the benefit.
"The DEA guy kept talking about Adam Jones," Kelly said. Jones apparently got the hint. In a message relayed from jail, Jones announced that we was resigning from SSDP and NORML and foregoing further drug reform efforts until he is free from the clutches of the state. That probably spells the temporary demise of Teachers Against Prohibition (http://www.teachersagainstprohibition.org), a group that education major Jones founded after having run smack up against drug war reality with his arrest (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/278.html#teachersagainstprohibition).
DEA Denver regional office spokesman Bill Wyman confirmed to DRCNet that an agent had visited the Eagle Lodge to warn of possible RAVE Act violations and their consequences, but deferred a more detailed response to Special Agent in Charge Jeff Sweet, whom Wyman promised would call back shortly. We're stilling waiting for that call.
"This confirms all our fears about the RAVE Act," said Bill Piper of the Drug Policy Alliance (http://www.drugpolicy.org), which spearheaded opposition to the bill, succeeding in blocking it last year. "This isn't about drug parties or raves, it's about having a club to hold over people's heads, whether its hemp festivals, circuit parties, dances, whatever. The RAVE Act is being used to suppress political speech. This is exactly what Sen. Biden said would not happen, and now it's happening," he told DRCNet.
Biden's office did not respond to repeated DRCNet inquiries about whether the Montana intimidation effort was what he intended the act to accomplish. But Biden wasn't alone in his silence. None of the three members of the Montana congressional delegation, Sens. Max Baucus (D) and Conrad Burns (R), and Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R), responded to DRCNet inquiries either.
Other national drug reform organizations also expressed shock and outrage. "This looks like the first application of the RAVE Act, and this is a very scary precedent, said NORML Foundation head Allen St. Pierre. "Preemptively shutting down a First Amendment-protected event is something that just doesn't happen in America," he told DRCNet. "This is absolutely what we feared and predicted would happen if the RAVE Act passed. Isn't Montana known for being resistant to federal encroachment? This should make them mighty uneasy."
"This is just more evidence that the current administration is engaged in a culture war targeting medical marijuana patients, glass blowers, festival goers and young people," said SSDP national director Shawn Heller.
"Wow," said Marijuana Policy Project communications director Bruce Mirken. "This appears to be a clear violation of the purpose and intent of the law. The RAVE Act's sponsors said repeatedly it was to crack down on people knowingly allowing open drug use," he told DRCNet. "To use it to crack down on reform organizations is an outrageous First Amendment violation. If laws, no matter how wrongheaded, aimed at drug use and distribution are used to intimidate efforts to discuss reform or raise money for reform, we are getting really Orwellian. I really hope the folks up there sue and sue hard."
Montana activists are also worried but undaunted. Missoula Hempfest organizer and Montana NORML spokesman John Masterson told DRCNet the threat of RAVE Act prosecutions was being carefully considered. "The Hempfest committee just spent most of our last meeting talking about this," he said. "We have more than 5,000 people each year in a Missoula city park. Is the DEA going to come after the city? We are meeting with local attorneys to discuss this, but we're not talking about canceling Hempfest. Screw that."
And the drug reformers are mobilizing. A conference call among NORML, SSDP, MPP, Montana NORML and the Montana ACLU was set for Thursday night or this morning. "We may have a coalition up to fight this by the end of the day," St. Pierre said Thursday. "The Drug Policy Alliance warned us the RAVE Act would be used to suppress free speech, and they haven't been proven wrong. Looks like we have our first case."