As Anti-Ecstasy Offensive Intensifies, US Attorney in New Orleans Indicts Rave Promoters 1/19/01

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In a new tactic targeting the broader rave culture as well as the popular "club drug" Ecstasy (MDMA, a stimulant with mild hallucinogenic properties), federal prosecutors in New Orleans have indicted three men for organizing a series of raves where large amounts of the drug were allegedly consumed. The raves took place at New Orleans' State Palace theater over a five-year period beginning in 1995.

The innovative bust comes as law enforcement officials, legislators, and newspapers nationwide are ratcheting up the noise level about the Ecstasy "menace." Departing drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey, in remarks earlier this month on his final drug strategy report, singled out Ecstasy for special attention. He warned that the drug is spreading rapidly, with an "explosive increase in exposure among our children."

The numbers back him up, except among "our children." That Ecstasy use has become increasingly popular is undeniable. The Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), which reports emergency room mentions for all sorts of drugs, shows Ecstasy mentions going through the roof, from 68 in 1993 to 2,200 last year. Law enforcement activity also suggests substantial growth in the Ecstasy trade. The DEA seized nearly a million Ecstasy tablets last year, seven times the previous year's number. But US Customs numbers dwarfed the DEA's: Customs seized nearly 10 million tablets in 2000, 3.5 million in 1999 and 750,000 in 1998.

State and local authorities from Des Moines to Daytona also report substantial Ecstasy enforcement operations (which they too often confused with harassing raves and ravers), and press accounts from across the country paint pictures of a hearty, thriving Ecstasy culture extending far beyond raves and into the dance halls, dorms, and living rooms of white, middle class America. Recently, Ecstasy use has begun to spread into the black and Hispanic communities as well, if press accounts are to be believed.

Anecdotal accounts available to DRCNet suggest much the same. Admittedly informal surveys of twenty- and thirty-something, white, college-educated drug users in the Northeast, Texas, and on the West Coast yielded similarly responses. Among their drug-using peers, is anybody doing crack? Hah. Coke? A few. Heroin? A few. Ecstasy? Everybody.

It's a different story, however, with "our children." McCaffrey was apparently referring to the students surveyed in the venerable Monitoring the Future annual survey of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders. Among those closest to being "children," the 8th-graders, Ecstasy use has actually decreased by .3% between 1996 and 2000. While it began to increase again last year, use remains lower than five years ago. Among 10th graders, Ecstasy use has increased by less than one percentage point since 1996 (from 4.6% to 5.4%), according to Monitoring the Future. Where Ecstasy use has increased most markedly is among the oldest students surveyed. Among the 17- and 18-year-old twelfth-graders, the rate of Ecstasy used increased from less than one in twenty to less than one in ten.

McCaffrey was on even shakier ground when, in an attempt to frighten potential Ecstasy users, he warned them not to forget "the possibility of dropping dead the first time you use it."

That chance is infinitesimal. Given reported seizure figures and rule of thumb estimates that seizures account for only 10% to 25% of contraband items, the number of Ecstasy tablets consumed in the United States in the last decade is probably in excess of 50 million and could be as high as 100 million. The total number of deaths properly attributed to Ecstasy, generally caused by preventable overheating, not by overdose, was 27 as of 1998, the last year for which DAWN provides mortality numbers.

Notwithstanding the relative safety of Ecstasy use -- or is it because that relative safety makes it all the more threatening? -- lawmakers have declared war on the drug. Last year, congressional drug warriors introduced the Club Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, which would have increased Ecstasy trafficking penalties to parity with those for methamphetamines. Although it died in committee, chances are that it will be back in some form this year. New Jersey passed harsh new legislation (see http://www.drcnet.org/wol/148.html#editorial and http://www.drcnet.org/wol/149.html#panicspreads), and other states, notably Illinois and North Carolina, will see efforts to enact similar punitive laws this year.

And in a move that aims a dagger at the heart of rave culture, federal prosecutors last week indicted New Orleans rave promoters Robert and Brian Brunet and James Estopinal under a federal law designed to close down crack houses. That law makes it a federal crime to make a building available for the use of illegal drugs.

The three men are not charged with possessing or distributing drugs or conspiring to do so. Still, they face as much as 20 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.

US Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana Eddie Jordan lashed out at the trio at a press conference on January 12th. "In my time as a prosecutor, this is one of the most unconscionable drug violations I have seen," he frothed. "They used these raves to exploit young people by designing them for pervasive drug abuse."

Jordan explained that "by definition" raves are parties designed to promote Ecstasy use or enhance the Ecstasy experience. Therefore, he threatened, anyone who uses the word "rave" to market an event could be subject to investigation.

In an ominous sign for rave culture across the land, Jordan added that he has heard from other federal prosecutors who want to use the same tactic to "clamp down" on rave organizers in their districts. Local authorities from California to Florida to Illinois and beyond have used a variety of measures to attempt to restrict or ban the dances.

Gerald Rault, a Loyola University law professor, told the Times-Picayune (New Orleans) that the tactic was questionable. Prosecutors would have to prove that defendants were certain widespread drug use was occurring and did nothing to stop it, Rault said. But, he added, the threat of prosecution would have a chilling effect on rave promoters.

"Just the very prosecution of these people becomes very costly to them, and there's the agony of potential conviction, so the very fact of indictment would deter rave parties."

For state and federal officials unwilling to differentiate between a youthful subculture and the drug use of some of its members, that seems to be the idea.

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Issue #169, 1/19/01 Cops and Robbers: Exposés Find Ashcroft Encouraged Constitutional Violations in Missouri Asset Forfeiture Cases, Police Agencies Kept Funds Intended for Schools | AIDS Activists Storm Ashcroft Hearing, Denounce Needle Exchange Record | And the New Drug Czar is...? | Implementing the Initiatives: Nevada Medical Marijuana Fight Moves to Legislature as AMR Eyes Bigger Targets | As Anti-Ecstasy Offensive Intensifies, US Attorney in New Orleans Indicts Rave Promoters | Follow That Story: Modesto Police Fail to Find Reason for Shooting 11-Year-Old in Drug Raid, More Investigations Pending | Massachusetts: Local Victories on Marijuana Questions in November Start to Have an Impact on Beacon Hill | Calling All Activists: Ashcroft, Hemp | The Reformer's Calendar: LA, Philly, Portland, New York, DC, SF, Minneapolis, St. Petersburg, Fort Bragg, Miami, Amsterdam, New Delhi | Editorial: A Message to the Incoming President
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