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Generation Ecstasy Comes Down

Maybe the Taliban would approve: Congress's RAVE Act could mean a crackdown for dance-music clubs like the Quest, the host of this Saturday-night PLUSH showcase
Tony Nelson

A rave just isn't a rave anymore. During a recent "Underground Culture 2" party held above the Babylon International Café and Gallery, a petite brunette waits with a friend in the bathroom line, which is quite long because only one stall has a door on it. "God, I haven't been to a rave in forever!" she yelps to the other girl. Something about the combination of the venue's tacky, salmon-colored walls and the fact that the girl uses the word rave to describe the party she's at makes you want to smirk: She sounds like a parent using the word shindig to describe a kegger.

Still, the brunette has a point. This party is one of the only DJ-oriented events that have taken place in Minneapolis outside the well-trafficked clubs in many months. A few years ago, this party would have been deemed mediocre in comparison to some of the massive underground events being held in ice arenas and warehouses across the metro area. Tonight, though, "Underground Culture 2" is a rarity that's causing young adults to bound from room to room with a skip in their step. What these kids might not know is that if the U.S. Congress has its way, this type of event may soon be resurgent, as a new piece of far-ranging drug-war legislation threatens to chase electronic music out of clubs and other legal venues.

Over the past few years, the mainstream media has capitalized on parents' worst nail-biting uncertainties by divulging the dirtiest secrets of the rave--including some people's use of "club drugs" like MDMA (commonly known as Ecstasy). Films like 1999's Go and 2000's Groove have depicted the scene with some element of accuracy; "undercover" segments on local newscasts nationwide have found in raves yet another thing to fear (along with vicious house pets, unpredictable weather, and poorly made children's toys). In part as a response to this attention--and the added scrutiny of the police and city inspectors--DJs and promoters of rave-type events moved their events into clubs and other legal venues in order to survive. The end result of the migration can be seen every Saturday at the Quest, where local DJ/promoter Jack Trash and his cohort Rich Best keep a stream of headlining DJs circulating through Minneapolis for the benefit of electronic-music lovers.

Trash's former partner, local rave godfather ESP Woody McBride, suggests that the scene isn't as "punk rock" as it used to be. Still, parties are surely safer than they were before--clubs have seasoned security staff and procedures for medical crises--and for the time being, they're legal. Now, the U.S. Senate might change all that. That great debating club is responding to the global dance-music community's widely used (and admittedly cutesy) acronym P.L.U.R. (Peace, Love, Unity, and Respect) with a more frightening one of its own: R.A.V.E. In June of this year, Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) proposed the "Reducing Americans' Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act of 2002," referred to as "the RAVE Act" (s.2633). Citing the National Drug Intelligence Center, the bill claims that "raves have become little more than a way to exploit American youth." And it asserts that coded flyers, glowsticks, pacifiers, and even bottled water are blatant indicators of drug use by patrons.

Sponsored by senators Durbin (D-Illinois), Hatch (R-Utah), Grassley (R-Iowa), and Leahy (D-Vermont), the bill amends the federal "crack house law," which makes it a felony to furnish a space for illegal drug use. The original statute applies to the owner of a fixed indoor location--like a crack house. The RAVE Act extends culpability for drug use to those who "open, lease, rent, use, or maintain any place, whether permanently or temporarily...either as an owner, lessee, agent, employee, occupant, or mortgagee." In this manner, party throwers, promoters, club managers, landlords, or even owners of a farm or campground could be prosecuted for the Ecstasy use of patrons. Violators could face both felony charges that could bring 20 years of prison time and a stiff civil penalty of up to $250,000.

This isn't the first crackdown on raves of its kind. In June of 2001, Patrick and Thorston Pfeffer, owners of Florida's largest nightclub, Club La Vela, were indicted under that state's "crack house" statute. Five months later three New Orleans concert promoters, including DJ Disco Donnie, were indicted under the same law for throwing parties in the State Palace Theater. Both the Florida and New Orleans cases were successfully challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and thrown out--though several federal prosecutions have already been successful. Senator Biden's more widely targeted RAVE Act has tiptoed through the Senate Judiciary Committee relatively unnoticed until recently, and it is considered uncontroversial by Senate leadership, who could pass the bill by unanimous consent in its next session.

"Unfortunately, most raves are havens for illicit drug use," says Senator Biden in a press release issued by his Delaware office (Biden did not return City Pages' calls requesting comment). "Enacting the RAVE Act will help prosecute the promoters who seek to profit from exploiting and endangering young lives. The RAVE Act will help spread the message so that today's kids and their parents will know the risks of taking Ecstasy, and what it can do to their bodies, their brains, their futures."

 

While the legislation has only received a committee vote to date, the Minnesota senatorial delegation appears unlikely to oppose the bill. "It hasn't been considered on the floor of the Senate, and we're not sure it will," says Allison Dobson, a spokeswoman for Paul Wellstone's office in Washington. "But should it come to a floor vote, I think Senator Wellstone would be inclined to support it."

(Mark Dayton's office reported that the traveling senator had yet to read the bill; the Norm Coleman campaign failed to respond to requests for comment.)

While the legislation snakes its way through the Senate, local club managers and promoters seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach. "Drug use will still take place at punk and country shows," Chris Olson, security and production manager at First Avenue, says. "My personal responsibility increases, but we're still going to do what we've always done--which is provide entertainment for the people. This thing is going to inconvenience the customer more than anything." Here, Olson is referring to the longer security lines that will likely await patrons of the club's numerous dance nights. Electronic-music lovers, he says, "might abandon the scene before the clubs do."

Quest Club owner Gilbert Dabison won't throw in the towel easily. Though this is the first he's heard of the proposed RAVE Act, he calls the bill "absurd" and says the Quest will continue to host dance-music events like PLUSH. "The loose language of the bill would allow officials to target any type of music, and that's the business we're in," Dabison says. "We do all we can to keep drugs and other illegal activity out of our club, but people ultimately need to be responsible for their own actions."

While the Quest and First Avenue make their business out of concerts and dance nights, a handful of other venues in town like theaters and bowling alleys have occasionally opened their doors to dance-music parties. Whether the owners of these buildings would be willing to tolerate the risk of fines or imprisonment is uncertain. Theatre de la Jeune Lune, for instance, has hosted multimedia dance events like Ricochet Kitchen's "Nudes" art party and Hush Productions' "Ascension" in its handsome warehouse space--though as Bethany Gladhill, Jeune Lune's director of operations, explains, "The events that we allow are completely ancillary to our mission, which is the work of the Jeune Lune company." Gladhill adds, "We're very careful about our space. We have it in our contract that any illegal actions could cause an immediate shutdown of the event." But she concedes that the RAVE Act could prompt a change to the venue's rental policy. "It might make us consider it more carefully," she says.

Hush Productions head DJ, Zak Khutoretsky (a.k.a. DVS1), has thrown parties in the Twin Cities for a number of years and has a fondness for the creative vibe of unconventional venues. He's annoyed by the RAVE Act. "As a promoter who takes all the necessary precautions when doing an event--insurance, bonded security, local law enforcement, etc.--the fact that I could be held responsible for the ill choices that a few people make is completely unfair. When was the last time that a Target Center promoter or a club owner has been held responsible for a legal adult's decisions? I'm sure personal lawsuits have happened to those institutions, but has the government ever bent the club or arena over its knee and slapped 'em?"

A house DJ at the forefront of the Minneapolis dance-music scene, Nick Grzechoviak (a.k.a. Nik E. Gunz), believes the bill could "make events burrow so underground that safety measures could be cast aside and made a non-issue." A promoter and head boss of Omen Entertainment (formed in 1994), Grzechoviak says, "I'm not a psychic, and I have never been. If I knew who was going to do what, and when, I would do everything in my power to prevent it. We place a simple request at the bottom of every underground promo flyer we've produced saying, 'NO DRUGS, ALCOHOL, MARKERS, BAD VIBES.' We feel that is publicly stating our convictions."

 

To date, opposition to the RAVE act has been scattered. The Board of Supervisors of the City and County of San Francisco drew up a resolution opposing the bill, stating that the legislation "will force electronic dance and other events further underground, away from public health and safety regulations, and discourage business owners from enacting harm-reduction measures." Though most people don't deny that the risks of taking Ecstasy are real, the Drug Policy Alliance of Washington, D.C. (DPAW) and the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco, along with the ACLU, have taken an active stance against the bill. Where the right to use drugs is not protected by the First Amendment, the right to dance is. The DPAW has raised concerns that the bill's language is "too broad" and "deserves debate."

 

While Minnesota Civil Liberties Union executive director Chuck Samuelson hadn't heard of the little-publicized RAVE Act, he is skeptical of its legality. "If this makes it illegal to have loud parties with music and dancing, I'm 99 percent positive the Civil Liberties Union will oppose it," he says. "It's strange that you're calling me on the day of Elvis's [death]," he adds, "because this is what happened in the Fifties, based on the idea that loud music would lead to sin." When told that the proposed statute would hold promoters and club owners criminally liable for the drug use of their patrons, he states, "That's probably too broad."

While the RAVE Act has seen little official debate among politicians, message boards on rave-friendly sites across the U.S. have erupted with anger and concern. Minnesota's popular rave Web site, MNVibe (www.mnvibe.com) has been a hotbed for such discussion. Says site user Matt Murphy, age 23, who also serves as a VJ/lights coordinator at the Quest, "This bill blames a musical genre for the crimes of people who would use drugs [in] homes, at school, at a Twins game, or anywhere else."

Eide, a 21-year-old woman, makes Murphy's point more directly. On one of MNVibe's forums, she writes, "If I can't go out dancing because all the venues are being shut down or discouraged, I think I might end up using more illegal substances. Give [kids] nowhere to go and they will find their own amusement."

Andy LeMay, a 24-year-old graphic designer and flyer creator, agrees that eliminating raves won't necessarily eliminate drug use. "MDMA doesn't just swoop down out of the sky, pick up children, and carry them to their deaths," chides LeMay, who has been attending dance parties since 1994. "The [RAVE Act's use of the] word vulnerability implies that Americans are helpless drones that will ingest anything that is put in front of them." Though he says promoters who don't take reasonable measures to prevent drug use should be "dealt with," he doesn't think they can possibly eliminate every illegal activity at their events. "Did United and American Airlines suffer criminal charges for letting terrorists board their flights?" he asks.

Globetrotting West Coast house-music pioneer, DJ Dan (a.k.a. Daniel Wherrett), though strongly against the bill, searches for a positive spin on its potential ramifications. "It could keep DJs from other countries from scoring a huge bankroll on their few yearly U.S. appearances," he says. In other words, if raves move from the clubs back to the warehouses, moneymaking bar tabs might vanish, DJs might be paid less, and national and local DJs might win back some deck time from their international counterparts.

On the opposite coast, major drum 'n' bass producer Dieselboy (a.k.a. Damian Higgins) fears that the RAVE Act would force him to stop DJing live. He reports that he has signed a petition against the legislation. "It's ridiculous," he says from an Atlanta airport over his cell phone. "What's next? The hip-hop community? Hip hop blatantly refers to widespread Ecstasy use, but because there's big money behind it, it doesn't get targeted. The rave scene is far less commercial, and it's being punished for that." Indeed, this summer's Smokin' Grooves tour dates aren't being canceled for all the illegal puffing that goes on, and even the Grateful Dead Family Reunion concert promoters haven't been threatened with fines.

Though the general sentiment of electronic-music fans is that the bill is discriminatory, some people believe it is also inevitable. "The party's over," Mankato resident and registered MNVibe member Doug Stauffer says. "This scene has been flaunting blatant drug use for over a decade...and only has itself to blame by booking artists that represent drug use, à la the Crystal Method. Did you think the suburban housewives wouldn't scream?"


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