Raving lunacy

Officials are cracking down on dance clubs that provide health information about recreational drugs. They may shut down some raves, but kids will die.

Published June 20, 2001 6:13PM (EDT)

Witness the humble glowstick. This neon yellow tube of light, testament to the wonders of the nontoxic chemical reaction, is popular at Britney Spears concerts, Mardi Gras parades and summer street fairs. But because glowsticks are also commonly found at raves, where partiers wave them about during their dance-floor kinetics, they have become a curious casualty of the government's war on drugs.

An injunction handed down against a group of New Orleans party promoters last Wednesday charges that glowsticks -- along with pacifiers, Vicks VapoRub and dust masks -- are "drug paraphernalia," and their presence on a dance floor is a sign that illegal drug activity is taking place.

In response, the promoters have banned glowsticks from their clubs, along with chill rooms, where partyers might go to catch their breath (or where they might, in the eyes of the authorities, go to take their drugs), and massage tables (where God knows what nefarious activities might occur). The injunction seems to imply that if you take away the chill rooms and the glowsticks, you take away the drugs.

It's bafflingly backward logic, but then again, the federal government's war on drugs hasn't always made sense.

The demonization of the cheery little glowstick is the harbinger of a topsy-turvy new front in that increasingly bizarre conflict. As teens continue to gobble ecstasy, ketamine, speed and GHB at frightening rates, everything and everyone is vulnerable. While the owners of venues like nightclubs where patrons do illegal acts have always been subject to crackdowns, grim prosecutors are now targeting dance clubs with leaky old "crack house" laws from the 1980s, and threatening owners and promoters with decades in prison.

In this new era, even promoters who try to stop drug use are vulnerable. Call the cops on a drug-using patron and you've marked yourself as the owner of a drug operation. Hire an ambulance as a precaution against overdoses, or let a harm-reduction group like DanceSafe distribute literature, and you've done the same thing.

If the New Orleans case should set a national standard, not only will ravers lose their glowsticks, but the entire dance community could potentially lose its clubs, concert halls and parties -- and, in the most drastic cases, ravers could lose their lives.

"The government is engaged in an outright war on nightclubs, which they hope will make it appear that they are doing something to stop the drug epidemic," says Will Patterson, who runs the Electronic Music Defense and Education Fund, which raised $50,000 for the New Orleans promoters' defense. "But if you take away the clubs, [drug users] just go somewhere [else]. The nightclubs are at least trying to combat drug use in every way they can."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

"Lately raves are just a venue for drug purchases. They are no more than analogous to a crack house, in which you go buy the drugs and go out the back door. Although there's music being played, and the people at the raves are saying, 'I come here for the music,' drugs are predominant in these rave clubs. And it's just a mix of drugs and music, and it's become a venue for drug purchases."

-- Quote from a promotional video distributed by the DEA

By any measure, the government's war on drugs has been a failure. Despite the fact that the government spent $17.9 billion battling drugs last year -- and arrested 1,532,200 people on drug charges the year before -- the number of young adult drug users has not significantly changed since it hit a peak in 1997, according to the annual Monitoring the Future study. Fifty-four percent of all high school seniors have done drugs, and the drugs they are doing are harder. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 8.2 percent of all high school seniors did MDMA, or ecstasy, in 2000 (up from 5.6 percent the year before). Drugs like GHB (a liquid that mildly mimics the floaty, euphoric sensation of ecstasy) and ketamine (an animal tranquilizer that, when snorted, sends the user into a hallucinatory state like catatonia), which once were used primarily by New Agers seeking psychedelic epiphanies, are also on the rise among young adults and teens.

And these harder drugs can be dangerous. More than 2,850 people were admitted to hospitals for what were termed "ecstasy overdoses" in 1999, according to the Drug Abuse Warning Network. And although DAWN reports that the number of deaths from drugs like ketamine, ecstasy and GHB was relatively small between 1994 and 1998 (12 died from GHB, 47 from ketamine, 27 from ecstasy), that data is several years old. The DanceSafe organization now cites at least 100 ecstasy-related deaths. The vast majority of these, however, were not overdoses but the result of becoming overheated on the dance floor or ingesting pills sold as ecstasy that were actually dangerous substances like DXM, a cough suppressant that can cause overheating if taken in large quantities, and the stimulant PMA.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse calls these "club drugs," though users, of course, can do them just about anywhere. Accordingly, the government has brought its drug war to the clubs themselves. While state and local authorities have been cracking down on raves and all-night dance clubs for almost a decade across the country, the national hysteria over teens and ecstasy has brought the battle to a fever pitch. Federal authorities are now stepping in, and the new front lines are in New Orleans and Panama City Beach, Fla.

When the New Orleans promoters were indicted in January, partyers and promoters across the country sat up and paid attention. Robert Brunet, Brian Brunet and James ("Donnie") Estopinal were partners in New Orleans' most popular all-night dance party, Freebass, at the State Palace Theater dance club. Every weekend, Freebass would fly in the world's top DJs to play for thousands of ecstatic dancers -- just like dozens, if not hundreds, of other clubs and parties across the United States.

Undercover cops from the Drug Enforcement Administration and the New Orleans Police Department infiltrated the parties; finding that some attendees were doing drugs, the U.S. district attorney in New Orleans drew up charges against the promoters. This, in itself, was not unusual -- promoters have skirmished with authorities for years -- but the law under which the three were eventually indicted offered a frightening new twist. Federal authorities were using a musty, long-forgotten law from 1986, the "crack-house statute," which was originally written to attack the proprietors of havens for crack cocaine. Although the Brunets and Estopinal had not personally sold any drugs at their parties, they were charged with "knowingly and intentionally" running a club where people used drugs.

The punishment? A possible 20 years in prison, and potentially millions of dollars in fines.

The ramifications were far-reaching. If the Brunets and Estopinal were found guilty of running a 21st century crack house, then every promoter who threw a club, party or similar event where attendees did drugs could be found similarly liable. Other than the occasional Amy Grant concert, are there any music events where you can't find attendees who are doing drugs of some sort? The indictment was a shot fired across the bow of the entire dance music industry.

"The government has this crazy notion that, somehow or another, a promoter should be held criminally responsible as a drug offender because of what people in the audience may do," said Arthur Lemann III, the lawyer for Brian Brunet. "It's a lot like arresting the usher because Pavarotti stabs the fat lady at the end of the opera."

The New Orleans promoters faced a legal ordeal that could take years. It could cost them millions and still land them in jail. On Wednesday, the three promoters accepted a plea bargain; their company, Barbecue Inc. (rather than the individuals themselves), would plead guilty to one count of operating a crack house, and the corporation would pay a $100,000 fine. The promoters would not have to serve any jail time. But the settlement also included an injunction that forbade the presence of glowsticks, Vicks VapoRub, masks, pacifiers, massage tables and chill rooms at future parties. (Partyers rub the Vicks under their noses for an additional buzz; the pacifiers are used to stop tripping dancers from grinding their teeth or simply as a fashion accessory; dust masks are for fashion, to enhance the effects of the Vicks -- and sometimes just to keep dance-floor dust out of their system.)

Lemann calls the plea bargain a "face-saving masquerade" to hide the fact that the government didn't have a strong case; and the deal was certainly a personal victory for the promoters, who no longer face spending the rest of their lives in jail. But the fact remains that a company that throws late-night parties and sells glowsticks was found guilty of running a crack house; and that decision could still spell disaster for the nation's other clubs. (Estopinal did not accept the plea bargain; and although he has not been personally reindicted, it remains a possibility that he could still go to trial.)

"It is a bad precedent," says University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds, who consulted on a legal brief for the defendants. "Even if the charges are bogus, the government proved that they can extort a plea agreement, because any rational [promoter] faced with the threat of going to jail for 25 years is going to agree to a plea bargain like this that makes it all go away. But it's extortion, not justice."

Within months of the New Orleans indictment, prosecutors in Panama City Beach, Fla., indicted promoters of a popular club called Club La Vela, home to MTV's spring break bootyfests and the nation's largest nightclub, under crack-house laws as well. In Florida, the war against raves is already several years old: In 1997, state officials passed a bill that made it illegal for clubs or restaurants that sold liquor to stay open past 2 a.m. Two years later, the state police instituted "Operation Heat Rave," raiding 57 clubs with the intent of shutting them down if they found any evidence of drug use. Club La Vela, the most visible club in Florida, became the unfortunate locus of the authorities' ire; at one news conference, Panama City Beach Police Chief J.B. Holloway went so far as to accuse the club's owners of "raising [underage patrons] to come back and buy their drugs later."

Club La Vela was raided in early 2000, and police turned up a variety of drugs -- although they found no evidence that the owners themselves were selling illegal substances. On May 5, 2001, Club La Vela owners Patrick and Thorston Pfeffer were slapped with an indictment for allowing drug trafficking at their club. Like the New Orleans case, a federal grand jury indicted the nightclub owners under the crack-house statute; unlike the New Orleans case, the government also seized the assets of Club La Vela and forbade the owners from leaving the state. (Club La Vela's owners, in turn, are suing the local law enforcement agencies for defamation and depriving them of their right to public assembly.) The case is set to go to trial in July.

Meanwhile, the crack-house gambit gains momentum in prosecutors' offices across the country. In Chicago, where several clubs have already been shut down after hosting raves, Mayor Richard Daley sought a local twist on the approach that would mandate six months in jail for anyone who allowed drug sales on his or her property. As Daley said at a press conference in March, "The people who run rave parties -- or own the rooms where they take place -- know exactly what's going on. But the city does not have sufficient powers to hold them responsible." The ordinance passed in early May.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

There is a strategic logic to the government's war on glowsticks and pacifiers. For several years, federal drug authorities have been conducting a P.R. campaign that labels these toys as "drug paraphernalia" that will help identify that drugs are being taken. "What they've done is establish the beginning of a legal paper trail to substantiate their claims" and make it easier for authorities to target nightclubs, says Patterson of the Electronic Music Defense and Education Fund. "Within a month of the indictment in New Orleans, a lot of major nightclubs had already stopped selling glowsticks."

But while a few candy ravers might be upset at losing their glowsticks, there's a deadlier side to the new crackdown. A much more dangerous loss to club kids is the "chill room," which the New Orleans case also identified as an accouterment of drug use in its list of paraphernalia banned from Barbecue Inc.'s parties. A number of other seemingly innocuous club practices -- like having ambulances present, featuring booths of harm-reduction groups like DanceSafe on the premises or even pumping in extra air conditioning -- are being targeted by authorities as well.

The dance music community is not blind to the fact that drugs are a problem at raves; as the rave scene has grown, it has given birth to organizations that promote responsible clubbing. The most prominent is DanceSafe, a two-year-old Oakland, Calif., nonprofit founded by theology grad student Emanuel Sferios. Hundreds of DanceSafe volunteers, in 24 chapters around the globe, spend their weekends visiting raves and dispensing information about safe drug consumption. Besides providing practical party tips -- reminding kids to drink water, chill out and avoid overheating -- volunteers also perform on-the-spot tests of ecstasy tablets to ensure that what the ravers are consuming is actually MDMA rather than a potentially lethal concoction like DXM or PMA.

The idea is similar to a needle-exchange program: The kids are going to take the pills anyway, so let's make sure that they do it safely. Thus far, DanceSafe has received support from the local police in the cities where it has chapters. As of yet, no volunteer or raver has been arrested for using the service, thanks to amnesty arrangements with police. According to Sferios, the program has been effective. Although the evidence is still mostly observational, he says, "when people start to expect us and our presence becomes common, the number of fake pills declines. If you do a particular party every time, or an event location every time, you'll start to see less fake pills, because the dealers with the fake pills learn they aren't going to get away with it."

DanceSafe's growing visibility in the rave community has also brought some unexpected challenges. According to Sferios, some savvy drug dealers have learned they can fool the on-site testing kits by putting a tiny amount of MDMA into an otherwise fake pill. (The testing kits can determine only whether a pill contains any ecstasy, not a detailed analysis of its chemical makeup.) "The vast majority of pills with MDMA are still pure," says Sferios, "but we are seeing ones now that are conscious efforts to fool the kits. It's very disturbing."

Cunning drug dealers, however, are the least of DanceSafe's problems. Although DanceSafe gets plenty of support from local police, the federal government is a different matter, and the group is becoming an unintentional victim of the crackdown on nightclubs.

When Eddie Jordan, the New Orleans district attorney, introduced the charges against the Freebass promoters, he cited a list of evidence that showed the promoters had been encouraging drug use. That "evidence" included not only glowsticks, bottled water and chill rooms, but the presence of DanceSafe, which distributed literature at the New Orleans parties and which, according to Jordan, was a group that promoted drug use.

DanceSafe has not yet suffered any legal repercussions for its activities, but Jordan's allegations have had a chilling effect on its activities. Promoters are now afraid to let DanceSafe into their clubs, lest the group's presence -- like that of glowsticks -- be used as evidence against them. "In some cities, promoters that were letting us into their parties have stopped, because of the New Orleans case," says Sferios, noting several parties in the San Francisco Bay Area at which his group's presence was prohibited. "The federal emphasis on ecstasy has affected us by frightening promoters into taking irrational and dangerous stances on this issue. Basically, it's the ostrich syndrome, and it's inhibiting our efforts."

Patterson describes the dilemma now facing promoters who want to work with DanceSafe: "The government has chosen the rave scene to wage their war against drugs, and as a promoter I don't know what decision I'd make. On one side you've got young people who want to participate in education about drugs, but by the very act of engaging in that education process they may be putting the promoter at risk of legal problems."

But DanceSafe's raison d'être is not merely to teach ravers how to be safe, but to teach clubs and promoters to provide what Sferios calls "safe settings." Much of it is common-sense stuff: free drinking water, chill rooms where overheating dancers can cool off, air conditioning and, for the largest events, on-duty medics or readily available emergency medical services. Unfortunately, the federal crackdown on nightclubs means that clubs that do provide these kinds of safety measures are essentially calling attention to themselves as drug havens.

Explains Reynolds, "What has always been regarded as responsible behavior is now going to be regarded as [promotion] of dangerous behavior. As a result they'll do things that are dangerous to patrons to protect themselves."

Club La Vela, for example, believes that its diligence in battling drugs was ultimately used as evidence against it. Says Luke Lirot, the attorney representing Thorston Pfeffer: "Club La Vela had a zero drug-tolerance policy and would call the police anytime they caught anyone with any substance. The police were upset because of all the calls. But clubs without all those calls of service aren't ferreting out all the drug use. Instead of being critical of this practice, they should have been commended."

Another major nightclub to learn this difficult lesson was Twilo, in New York's Chelsea district, which in 1998 began a long and protracted battle against city authorities, which accused it of being a drugstore for kiddie ravers. (According to Sferios, Twilo was a perfect example of a "safe settings" nightclub -- it provided ample water, pumped cool air onto its dance floor and even provided a private ambulance in case of overdoses or other emergencies.) Unfortunately, city authorities cited that ambulance as proof that the club was a drug den. (According to the New York Times, the city also alleged that Fire Department officials who answered a 911 call were blocked from entering the club to treat three hidden patrons who had overdosed on drugs.) Although the city's first attempt to remove Twilo's cabaret license was initially rebuffed by an appeals court as being "arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable," that decision was ultimately overturned by the state's highest court; Twilo is now closed.

"Twilo was probably the safest place in Manhattan -- if something happened, within 30 seconds you would be in the hands of a licensed EMS technician and paramedic in a full-service ambulance," says Mike Bindra, executive producer of Twilo. "The city used that to demonize us.

"We were using the same service the New York Yankees use! Why is it a state law that an ambulance must be present at a football game, or at a Metallica concert at Madison Square Garden, but when it comes to dance culture and a nightclub you must be using it to smuggle drugs? It's like the Salem witch hunt."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

The list of clubs and promoters that have faced trouble with authorities goes on and on. In New York, the Tunnel and Limelight have been fighting similar battles with city authorities. Rave promoters in San Diego and Humboldt County, Calif., have had their permits yanked. In San Francisco, nightclub institutions like 1015 Folsom and the End Up have battled closure for years. And once the nightclubs shut down, new ones rarely open in their place: Many cities, including New York and San Francisco, have instituted moratoriums (official and unofficial) on any new cabaret licenses or late-night dance licenses. The net effect is a declining pool of legal venues for raves, parties, concerts and other dance events.

Some promoters still hope that if they can get the local authorities on their side, they will avoid federal scrutiny. "I don't think the [crack-house cases] are affecting me, or anyone else in Southern California, because the people I work with in law enforcement are stellar," says Philip Blaine, owner of KingFish entertainment in Los Angeles. "Here they have a concern for the public well-being -- they understand that kids will go out at night, and would rather have them going to a place that's planned and put together than go under a city bridge and put on a boombox where if they get hurt no one will find them until Monday, when their bodies are decaying."

In San Francisco, too, the community is effectively fighting back. In the late 1990s, many of the city's late-night dance clubs -- including Trocadero, Club DV8 and VSF -- lost their permits, thanks to drug and noise complaints and a zero-tolerance attitude on the part of local officials. In July 1999, a group of local party promoters organized the San Francisco Late Night Coalition, a political-action committee dedicated to keeping the city's night life alive. Thanks to extensive lobbying and outreach with both nightclub owners and local officials, the group has successfully saved many of the city's remaining dance venues.

These promoters and others say that the most naive hope of the federal crackdown on nightclubs is that if you remove the venue, you will remove the problem. Even if there are no official places to dance, wave glowsticks and hang out in chill rooms, that doesn't mean fans of electronic music won't continue to dance and do drugs. Instead, the electronic music scene will simply go underground for places to party. Nothing motivates a music subculture more than the potential to defy authority.

"If they shut down every rave and nightclub and place of public assembly in the country, nothing will happen except that the dangers of drug intake will go underground, and people who make bad choices will pay the ultimate price," says Lirot, who is battling the Club La Vela case. "Whereas in the alternate settings, smart people take precautions and deal with problems professionally and safely and in a medically secure fashion. Chasing things underground is never a good idea -- although society thinks they benefit in the short term, they will end up paying for it in the long term."

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Janelle Brown

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Drugs Music