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Commentary

Ill-Informed Bill to Counter Ecstasy Use in Clubs Is Nothing to Rave About

July 29, 2002|WILLIAM D. McCOLL

Nearly 20 years ago I had an experience at a very large event that truly scared me. I watched a friend, clearly under the influence of a drug, pitch headfirst into a wall. Fortunately there was water and an ambulance on the scene. He spent the night in the infirmary and returned to us, chastened.

I was reminded of that incident because a rapidly moving bill in the U.S. Senate may force nightclub owners and promoters to eliminate having water or ambulances available in case of trouble. Senators on the Judiciary Committee, famed for their ability to bottle up judicial nominees for years, introduced the Reducing Americans' Vulnerability to Ecstasy (RAVE) Act and got it on the legislative calendar in less than a month.

This is troubling because there has been no public input, not even a hearing.

Sadly, the acronym alone makes the bill almost impossible to oppose. That's a shame because this bill sorely begs scrutiny.

In essence, the legislation would change the mid-1980s' "crack house" law to allow prosecution of rave promoters and owners of property on which drugs, including marijuana, may be used. This is a novel use of the law, which targets landlords who allow housing to be used for drug transactions that create long-term community problems.

The bill appears to be an ill- informed response to a failed prosecution of two New Orleans rave promoters in 2000. The promoters ultimately agreed to ban items that the Drug Enforcement Agency termed "drug paraphernalia"--pacifiers, glow sticks and bottled water--from future events. Fortunately, the ban was overturned on appeal.

Also in 2000, New York City shut down a nightclub, citing the presence of ambulances as evidence that the owners "knew" that drug use was occurring on the property.

Had there been a public hearing, the Senate would know the bill is too broad. It allows prosecution of people who "knowingly open, lease, rent, use or maintain a place for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing or using a controlled substance." Sounds fine except that "knowingly" and "for the purpose of" are too unspecific to provide adequate protection to innocent businesspeople.

Additionally, the bill allows prosecutors to charge owners civilly, lowering the standard of proof for conviction. Thus, despite good security, an owner could be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars.

It's not just businesspeople who are in jeopardy. The bill would make it a federal crime to temporarily use a place for the purpose of using marijuana or other drugs. Thus, homeowners who use drugs in their own home or throw a party at which a guest uses drugs could face fines and up to 20 years in prison. In states that allow the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, this bill would make it a federal crime to rent property to medical marijuana patients and their caregivers.

Because the bill would push licensed owners out of hosting musical events, raves and other musical events would go further underground and away from emergency care and hospitals. Moreover, by insinuating that selling bottled water, offering air-conditioned "cool off" rooms and having ambulances present is proof that owners and promoters know that drug use is occurring at their events, the bill may make business owners too afraid to implement safety measures.

As for the incident with my friend, well, the event was a University of Michigan football game and the drug was alcohol. He went face down while attempting a high-five. We were glad to have that water, and we were glad that Michigan had an ambulance crew waiting.

The unintended consequences of this bill would be severe. Senators should delay and fix the legislation or vote it down.

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William D. McColl is the director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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