Some months ago, if you had asked Graham Boyd, director of the ACLUs Drug Litigation Project, whether Congress was about to limit the rights of nightclub owners to host a rave, he would have told you to relax. Ive been predicting to anyone who would listen that this was all going nowhere, he says.
But on June 18, Delaware Democrat Joseph Biden, on behalf of himself and four other senators, introduced the Reducing Americans Vulnerability to Ecstasy (RAVE) act, and a week later he had muscled it through committee with neither hearings nor a voice vote. The bill would extend the provisions of the 1986 crack house law to raves, subjecting nightclub owners to civil penalties for opening, maintaining, managing, controlling, renting, leasing, making available for use, or profiting from any place for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing, or using any controlled substance, and for other purposes. It is expected to be brought up under unanimous consent as early as next week, stifling any debate of its merits.
Senate Bill 2633 was no doubt drafted in the afterburn of widely publicized cases in New Orleans and Tallahassee this past winter, in which the government found itself unable to convince juries that club owners were guilty of criminal wrongdoing on the basis of such evidence as their selling water to patrons with glow sticks. Its been something the Justice Department has wanted since New Orleans, says Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance in Washington, D.C. If you look at the state of Florida case, they really didnt have the evidence -- they used videos of a man massaging another man and pictures of people with lollipops as evidence that people were using illegal drugs. But the jury didnt buy it, says Piper, in part because it was a criminal case, in which the prosecution had to show guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This bill allows civil suits against people, which is a much lower standard, says Piper. And if a jury can give a woman $5 million for spilling coffee on herself, then it can certainly fine a nightclub owner $250,000 for suspecting that hes allowing people to do drugs in his venue.
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Piper and others at the Drug Policy Alliance worry that passage of the Senate bill will encourage an even more broadly written bill now stalled in the House, which threatens fines for any promoter who knows or reasonably ought to know that a controlled substance will be used or distributed. But there are likely to be other, unintended consequences as well.
Just as the crack-house law did little to inhibit abuse of the drug on city streets -- crack use peaked around 1990, and declined in popularity as a younger generation witnessed its vicious effects on their elders -- SB 2633, if it passes, will probably do little to stem the flow of club drugs, which include GHB and Ketamine, and more to drive electronic-dance-music events into less visible, less supervised venues, making an ever-younger crowd of ravers vulnerable to unscrupulous promoters and drug dealers. Also, because the RAVE bill associates chill rooms and the sale of water with drug use, promoters may be discouraged from making their venues safer. The vast majority of dance-club-related emergency-room visits result not from drug overdoses but from dehydration and overheating.
Boyd argues too that the law is an unconstitutional attack on free speech. It gives police the ability to shut down virtually any gathering of a large number of people based on their form of expression, he says. Music and dance, according to the courts, are protected forms of speech just as much as standing on the stump and talking politics.
Piper is busy lobbying senators for resistance, and there are rumors that Californias Barbara Boxer may force the bill into debate. Weve raised enough of a ruckus, he says. Maybe weve bought some time.