Raving Mad

New drug law limits gatherings

Steven Wishnia

Glow sticks, too, are a gateway to hard drugs, according to a New Orleans court.
—On May 30, a DEA agent walked into the local Eagles Lodge. The agent informed the hall’s manager that if anyone used illegal drugs at the night’s show, the lodge would be liable for a $250,000 fine, under the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act of 2003. The show, a benefit for the Montana State University chapters of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, was cancelled.

“It was a classic violation of the First Amendment,” says Harry Williams of the American Civil Liberties Union’s drug-law project. “The government targeted an event because it disagreed with the political views of its organizers.”

The incident was the first use of the controversial new law, which extends the federal “crackhouse law”—which makes it a felony to “knowingly” and “intentionally” allow property to be used for the purpose of drug dealing, manufacturing, or use—to cover temporary use of property, such as a rave in a rented warehouse. Originally introduced as the “Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act” in 2002 by Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Delaware), it stalled that fall after Congress received more than 40,000 letters of opposition. However, it was enacted last April, when Biden tacked it on to the “Amber Alert” child-kidnapping bill, after excising its “RAVE Act” title and rhetoric about “loud, pounding dance music.”

Taken literally, the law is so broad that letting people smoke marijuana at a private house party could be a federal felony. However, the furor over the Billings incident may have caused the government to back off somewhat. Biden, who had insisted that the law was merely intended to protect children from the horrors of Ecstasy and GHB, was not pleased.

On June 17, he wrote a letter expressing his concern to acting DEA administrator William Simpkins. Simpkins responded that while the agent in Montana had wanted to make sure that the Eagles Lodge owners “fully understood” that the NORML benefit was “likely to promote the use of illicit drugs,” he had “misinterpreted” the law, and the DEA was issuing new guidelines for enforcing it.

“The law will be used to target unscrupulous promoters who use their event to facilitate drug trafficking, who prey on teenagers and young adults,” says DEA spokesperson Will Glaspy. According to a notice the DEA posted on its Web site June 20, it will not apply to private parties or “events where people just happened to use drugs.”

“The law sets the bar very high,” asserts Biden spokesperson Chip Unruh. It is aimed at promoters personally involved in drug sales, he explains, and is not intended to prosecute club owners for patrons’ behavior.

The measure’s critics remain uneasy. The federal government has used the crackhouse law against promoters, and mass arrests at electronic dance parties are common. Last November, police in Racine, Wisconsin raided a rave and charged all the 440-odd people there with patronizing a “disorderly house.”

“I’ve talked to a lot of landowners and promoters, and they are not reassured by the DEA’s promises,” says the ACLU’s Williams. “The nationwide chilling effect is very strong.”

In addition, recent court decisions make it easier to prosecute club owners and promoters for drug use by patrons, notes Bill Piper of the Drug Policy Alliance. On June 20, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals held that a ban on glow sticks—an otherwise legal rave-scene accoutrement—at a New Orleans venue was constitutional. The promoters, prosecuted under the crackhouse law, had agreed to the ban as part of a plea bargain.

The law may end up affecting marijuana-culture events more, speculates Dale Gieringer of California NORML, given that the Bush regime “has decided that pot’s the most dangerous drug.” In the weeks after the Billings incident, an alternative-health fair in Sonoma County, California cancelled plans to have a designated smoking area for medical-marijuana patients. In Seattle, organizers of the annual Hempfest, the nation’s largest pot-legalization rally, decided not to let vendors sell pipes at the event. “If we’re going to fight on First Amendment grounds, we want to be in the best position we can,” says director Vivian McPeak. “This administration is serious about going after our culture.”

Adam Jones, the Billings benefit’s 21-year-old organizer, says the raid was a good thing, because it “grabbed people’s attention” about the law, but he wouldn’t want to go through it again. On probation for possession of psilocybin mushrooms, he was jailed the day before the show for violating it—not telling his probation officer that his employer, the Billings YMCA, had transferred him to another branch for the summer. He also ended up losing his job, and says he’s withdrawing from activism for now.

“It pains me because if anything, my opinions about the need for drug-law reform are stronger now,” he says, “but my probation officer has got the power.”

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