Congressional drug warriors may have thought they had an easy issue with the RAVE (Reducing Americans' Vulnerability to Ecstasy) Act. After all, the drug war establishment has been hyping the "club drug menace" for years now, and a largely compliant mass media has been lapping it up. So why not try to pass a bill to shut down the raves and prosecute the people who organize or sponsor them? It worked it committee, where the bill slid by easily last month. But as a floor vote looms, an alliance of civil libertarians, concerned businessmen, drug reformers and ravers is beginning to wage a campaign to kill the bill in its tracks or at least water down its most harmful provisions.
Sponsored by Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and author of the 1980s federal "crack house" laws, the RAVE Act, or S. 2633, is intended to do just that. Under its provisions, the "crack house" statutes are expanded to include any businessman, club owner or promoter on whose premises or at whose events illicit drugs are used or sold. And while the rave community is clearly the intended target of the RAVE Act, the bill's language specifies "any controlled substance," making events such as smoke-ins and hemp fests liable to prosecution as well. And since the bill specifies even temporary use of a property for the purpose of using an illicit drug, even homeowners entertaining at home could be liable. Under the bill's provisions, property owners, promoters and event managers could be fined up to $250,000 and face up to 20 years in prison on federal criminal charges. That's too much for the ACLU, the Drug Policy Alliance and the Electronic Music Education and Defense Fund, which along with youth-oriented groups such as Students for Sensible Drug Policy and local ad hoc groups such as DC's ROAR (Ravers Organized Against the Rave Act) and Los Angeles' Freedom to Dance, have formed a loose coalition to stop the RAVE Act.
"The RAVE Act is an attack against young people and the dance culture," said Darrell Rogers, national outreach coordinator for Students for Sensible Drug Policy (http://www.ssdp.org). "But that's nothing new. The older generation has always used every tool in its power to suppress youthful subcultures, whether it was the jazz hipsters of the '40s, the beatniks of the '50s, the hippies of the '60s, or the punks of the '80s," Rogers told DRCNet. "There's something ironic -- or is hypocritical a better word? -- in the fact that someone like Sen. Pat Leahy [D-VT], who cosponsored this bill is a self-confessed Grateful Dead fan. Nobody ever did drugs at a Dead show, right? Now Leahy is a protector of youth," Rogers moaned.
Rogers is one face of the youthful opposition to the RAVE Act, a paid staffer of a nationally-organized reform group; Legba Carrefour is another. A member of ROAR (http://www.rpmonline.org/roar/), Carrefour comes out of DC's thriving dance and electronic music culture and was not an activist before this summer. "When some of us in the DC party community heard that the RAVE Act had passed out of committee, we formed ROAR to fight it," said Carrefour. "We contacted the Drug Policy Alliance several weeks ago to get the ball rolling, and we are working with them and other groups to stop this bill," he said.
In fact, Carrefour and his associates are launching a series of protests around the country, starting with a rave on the grounds of the US Capitol on Friday, September 6th. "We'll do a media campaign ahead of time, and we'll do a public rave at the Capitol," he told DRCNet. "We'll have five DJs, along with speakers. It should be a lot of fun."
Similar events to raise awareness and opposition to the RAVE Act are tentatively scheduled for Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Charlotte, Chicago and Austin, Carrefour said. The RAVE Act has mobilized youth across the country, he added. "It's ironic, but with this bill Sen. Biden has done what others have been unable to do," laughed Carrefour, "which is to start to mobilize an entire generation of disaffected youth."
The youth may be playing an outside game with their public protests, but they are also playing an inside game, and in doing so they are joined by some serious organizational clout and seasoned drug reform veterans. Bill Piper of the Drug Policy Alliance's (http://www.drugpolicy.org) Washington, DC, office, is heading DPA's effort to rein in the senatorial madness.
"The clock is ticking," Piper told DRCNet. "Biden's office told us they plan to push this bill as soon as the session starts next week. We've called for September 6th to be a national day of call-ins to legislators. We're encouraging people to flood the phone banks next Friday," he said. "We think if we can cast a big enough spotlight on this bill, create enough controversy, we can at least prevent the bill from being passed without debate. And if they can't do that, they may not have time to get to it this fall," Piper continued. "After all, they have some other things to deal with, like Iraq, homeland security, appropriations bills, little things like that."
But reformers have also been involved in negotiations with Biden's staff and other key movers on the Hill, Piper said. "The ACLU, DPA, members of the business community and ROAR representatives are talking to Biden's people, and we hope to meet again with them next week," he said. "Biden's people have already heard us out and asked us to rewrite specific language to improve the bill. But they didn't expect any opposition at all," Piper added.
According to Piper, possible reforms of the bill's language could include: removing the civil provisions, which lower the burden of proof for prosecutors; inserting language to ensure that business owners or promoters are not punished for legal activities, such as the sale of glow sticks, or harm reduction actions, such as providing water and "cool down" rooms; and weakening provisions that could make an uninvolved property owner liable for the actions of others. "We would prefer that this bill not become law in any form," said Piper, "but we're also taking a harm reduction approach. If we can't defeat it -- and it would pass easily right now -- we can at least try to improve it," he argued.
Piper is guardedly optimistic about fending off the bill this fall. "We've talked to some of the other cosponsors, and they are beginning to see the bill is broader than they thought," he said. "They didn't get it. Everyone thought this was an innocuous bill, a slight change in the "crack house" laws. And now we have an impressive coalition building against it. We've sent 33,000 faxes to the Senate, and other groups have sent more. We've generated significant media coverage. The sponsors are surprised and worried," Piper said, "and the rave protests will just take it to a whole new level."
SSDP will be there, said Rogers. "We want to defeat this act and we're organizing our students around the country to contact elected officials, do to letter-writing campaigns, to hold direct actions, and yes, to dance."
"Biden and the others gravely underestimated the opposition," said DPA's Piper. "They may live to regret this bill. They're politicizing a new anti-drug war constituency and alienating a key segment of the Democratic base -- young people."