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Ridding 'Raves' of Drugs - 2003-03-17

Dancing the night away is more than a refrain at raves. A thousand people or more flock to these all-night dance parties, with their pulsating music and psychedelic light shows. Raves have become a part of the nightlife in cities like New York, Miami and San Francisco, and their popularity even reaches into America's heartland.

But they have a darker side many ravers use amphetamines like the drug ecstasy to keep dancing and intensify the power of the music. In Kansas City, rave promoters are trying to work with police to keep drugs out of their parties. Still promoters continue to be concerned about police busts.

A rave is not an ordinary party, in size, or cost. Throwing an event for 1,000 people or more can cost as much as $15,000. The money goes for promotions, disc jockeys [DJ's], lights and other expenses that promoters hope will be more than covered by ticket sales.

This party is considerably smaller than a typical rave. DJ's spin records under tents behind a Kansas City nightclub. The dance floor is packed with people, some carrying neon glow sticks that add small shimmers of light to an already brilliant display on the walls. The show is understandably a draw for teenagers, but there's also a fair sampling of those who are merely young at heart. This raver, who calls herself B-Positive, is a 40 year-old computer professional. "You walk in and you wanna start dancing from the minute you walk in the door. And, you probably dance for 8 solid hours. You're with a group of people, you all are enjoying it, and you probably got some endorphins goin', and yes, there probably was some drug use going on," she says. "It does add to the experience."

John Gallup, another working professional and rave enthusiast, says he doesn't endorse drug use but understands why those who use ecstasy say it gives them a child-like feeling of love and wonderment and intensifies the lights and music. "Whoa, man just hearin the music…so much endorphins goin' thru your body, just the excitement of it all, it's like taking a 'minithin', and getting a rush of caffeine running through your body all night long," he says.

But amphetamines also cause more disturbing physical effects, like uncontrollable teeth grinding, which ecstasy users try to ease with pacifiers. Some raves feature cool down rooms, for dancers whose body temperature can reach as high as 42 degrees Celcius.

"I've seen people passed out, not knowing what's going on, rapes have occurred there, robberies have occurred, assaults have occurred," says Sergeant Brad Dumit, a detective with Kansas City's vice squad who has busted raves. "We've gotten calls a day later that a girl had slipped into a coma from whatever drug she had used. I can't remember at the time what had occurred but I think it was GHB that had gotten slipped into her drink. And she was actually in a coma for two or three days."

Both rave activists and police say the problem with these parties is unscrupulous promoters, who charge inflated prices for admission, provide bottled water to thirsty dancers for an outrageous cost, and openly sell drugs at the events.

The problem has gotten attention in Congress. Senator Joe Biden is targeting dangerous promoters with his Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act. The proposal builds on state and local crack house laws, which allow police to fine and arrest people who knowingly keep an establishment open for drug use. "You make a hell of a lot more money putting these raves on selling drugs than you make putting a rave on to put a rave on," says Senator Biden. "And by the way, the same thing would be held accountable if you had a 1940s band and you put Tommy Dorsey music on and you had people coming in for the purpose of uh, uh getting high or using ecstasy to more appreciate Benny Goodman's clarinet. You know what I mean? It is irrelevant what the music is."

Originally known as the RAVE Act, Senator Biden changed the bill's name under pressure from electronic music activists, who say the rave is the studio where the art of electronic music is created.

Legitimate promoters in Kansas City and elsewhere have worked with police to weed out drug use at raves. But activists say, across the United States, police are still singling out raves from other events where drugs may be found. Kansas City promoter Joe Cummings recalls a rave he held with city permits. Even though his security people did pat-down searches to keep drugs out, Mr. Cummings says a police SWAT team still shut the party down. "I see three black vans, surrounding the front door, with this extremely bright spotlight facing into the door. Everybody is detained inside. They make people file out one by one into the spotlight in a slow, orderly fashion. Where the under covers were sitting in the vans, and were pointing people out to the police officers outside as they came out, they'd pull them out of line," says Mr. Cummings. "It was a very scary ordeal."

Out of more than 600 people at the rave that night, only a few were arrested for drug possession. Similar numbers are being found across the country according to the Electronic Music Defense and Education Fund, police are shutting down more and more raves, but finding only a relative handful of drug users. Electronic music activists, like the Fund's Susan Mainzer, say they're being targeted because their art form is associated with drug use. Ms. Mainzer says she's worried the police crackdown on raves will stifle a part of modern culture. "If you know that there's a law on the books that, if you throw an electronic music event, you could be shut down, you could fined up to $500,000, you could be thrown into jail for up to 20 years. That would have a chilling effect on a very vibrant, important aspect of American culture. It might not be as politically popular aspect of American culture, but it is a cultural expression."

This is certainly not the first form of musical 'cultural expression' associated with drugs, ravers point to arena-style rock and roll concerts and the heavy smell of marijuana inevitably found hanging over the crowds. Electronic music promoters say federal legislation didn't shut down those concerts, and they're hoping the fear of ecstasy use doesn't kill the rave.