By The Festival Lawyer //
Join The Festival Lawyer, Showbams and a new coalition called Amend The Rave Act (ATRA) to make Festivals safer for everyone.
The “RAVE” Act stands for the “Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act”. It’s a federal law that might win the title for “most misnamed law ever” since instead of reducing young people’s vulnerability to the drug it has greatly increased ecstasy’s danger at festivals and raves.
Through a series of unintended consequences, the RAVE Act has made festivals much more dangerous places than they need to be. This year alone, two people died and about 20 were hospitalized at the Mad Decent Block Party in August in Maryland. There were also drug-related deaths at Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas and at LA’s Hard Summer festival.
Additional safety measures relating to drug use (also known as “harm reduction measures”) could be taken at a lot of music festivals and raves. So why isn’t more being done? The problem is that these event producers and organizers are worried that if they take these safety measures they might expose themselves to criminal liability under the RAVE Act.
In August of last year, a young woman named Shelley Goldsmith, a gifted honors student at the University of Virginia, died of heatstroke at an EDM event in Washington D.C.
Shelley’s mother, Dede Goldsmith has now started a campaign in her honor to Amend The RAVE Act (ATRA) and push for greater safety measures at raves and festivals. You can read about her campaign and sign a petition in support here.
But why do we need to change the RAVE Act? What does the RAVE Act have to do with the death of Shelley Goldsmith or others who died from MDMA use at festivals?
THE DEATH OF SHELLEY GOLDSMITH AND A MOTHER’S CRUSADE
It was a year ago that Shelley Goldsmith died. By all accounts Shelley was a remarkable young woman. You can read more about her here.
Vice President Joe Biden introduced the RAVE Act into Congress when he was a Senator and was mainly responsible for it being passed into law in 2003. In one of those crazy coincidences that sometimes happens in life, Shelley Goldsmith had actually met Biden at an event the year before she died.
Shelley had taken MDMA the night of her death. However, she did not die of an “overdose”, but of heatstroke.
By far the most common cause of MDMA-related medical emergencies and death is heatstroke, where MDMA is only one of a number of factors involved. That’s because even a “normal” dose of MDMA raises body temperature about one degree and also inhibits the body’s ability to regulate its own temperature.
The harm reduction group, DanceSafe, recently wrote an article discussing the relationship of heatstroke to “overdoses”.
One of the other major dangers in taking MDMA is that it may not be MDMA at all. If you don’t know what I am talking about check out this documentary by Bunk Police called “What’s in your Baggie?”
Shelley’s mom, Dede Goldsmith, wonders what her daughter would have done if she had received drug education and peer-to-peer counseling before or at the event. Perhaps Shelley might have chosen not to use MDMA. Dede also feels that better safety measures at the event (like free and readily available water and “chill-out” rooms and areas) could potentially have saved her daughter’s life.
I have had a chance to talk to Dede Goldsmith on the phone, and I find her remarkable. Rather than being overwhelmed by her family’s tragedy, she has decided to make it her mission to change things and make festivals safer. She talks about her mission in this local news story.
JOE BIDEN AND THE RAVE ACT
In 2002, then Senator Joe Biden introduced the RAVE Act, a bill intended to expand the federal “crack-house statute.” The “crack-house statute,” a byproduct of the fierce drug war of the 1980’s, made it possible for the Feds to go after and prosecute landlords of a private residence where crack cocaine was being used or sold.
After all, what does “maintaining a drug-involved premise” mean? Things like the speed of the music in beats per minute or the appearance of glow sticks and menthol products.
The idea of the RAVE Act was to expand that statute to go after “rogue promoters” who were putting on illegal “raves” with rampant drug use. The RAVE Act expanded the earlier “crack-house statute” to include temporary venues like these underground “raves”. The RAVE Act also created a new crime, now making it illegal for promoters or landlords to “maintain a drug-involved” premise.
From the start, the vagueness of this language caused problems. After all, what does “maintaining a drug-involved premise” mean? To answer that question, the bill included a list of “findings”. The idea of these “findings” was to give examples of the type of things that Feds should look for as ways to identify an illegal “rave”. Things like the speed of the music in beats per minute or the appearance of glow sticks and menthol products.
Unfortunately, the bill also targeted aspects of harm reduction as criminal identifiers. For example, the original “findings” of the RAVE Act included things like the presence of freely available water and chill-out rooms. Huge opposition to the bill quickly arose. Aside from the fact that an entire music community was being specifically targeted, opponents were worried that legitimate promoters taking reasonable safety measures for drug use at their events would be targeted unfairly under the new law.
Ultimately Biden changed the name of his bill to the less inflammatory sounding “Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act of 2003” and struck the “findings” from the bill. The IDAPA was passed in 2003, although most still refer to it by its original name, the RAVE Act.
UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES OF THE RAVE ACT
After the RAVE Act – oh, sorry, the “Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act” – became law, the DEA set up “Rave Task Forces” to target different events. Despite the language being removed from the final version of the law, events were sometimes targeted due to the original “findings” of the bill (i.e. things like freely available water and chill-out rooms being present). In a few cases, even the presence of medical personnel or a harm reduction groups like DanceSafe were seen as suspect.
The EDM “scene” is far different than it was in the early 2000’s. The problem of underground or illegal “raves” is largely gone. Instead, EDM has joined the mainstream. These days, an EDM “festival” is a massive three-day event with intense security and safety planning. Accusing a modern promotion group like SFX or Insomniac of, “maintaining a drug involved premise” is ludicrous.
But a lot of the event producers of today are survivors of this first wave of “crack-house”/RAVE Act prosecutions in the early 2000’s.
For example, Pasquale Rotella, the CEO of Insomniac Events, explained during a recent Reddit AMA that it was his past experiences with the Feds that caused him to be cautious about “harm reduction groups.”
“When the DEA started going after innocent event producers under the Crack House Law, having DanceSafe at an event was one of the things they looked at to justify putting them in jail for 20 years,” he said. “If you don’t know about the Crack House Law, you should look into it. Dance culture has had a very challenging past. It’s amazing where it is right now.”
So for a lot of current event producers, the RAVE Act is always out there lingering, kind of like a legal Keyser Soze. They worry that if they allow drug education or public safety and health measures at their events, they might be opening themselves up to criminal or civil liability.
WHY AMENDING THE RAVE ACT MATTERS
It’s just not realistic to think that if you get tight enough security you can eliminate drug use completely at a festival. This year’s Electric Zoo had such intensive security measures that the New York Post called the event a “day-glo North Korea”. And yet when you read this article by The New York Times, it’s clear that no matter how many undercover cops you have on hand, some folks will use drugs at any festival.
Let’s face it, drugs have been part of music festivals since there first were music festivals. If you’ve ever watched the movie Woodstock, throughout the movie you can hear different announcements being made to the crowd about various safety issues. At one point the announcer infamously warns everyone that the “Brown acid is bad, don’t take the brown acid”.
That’s right, at one of the first music festivals is also one of the first “harm reduction” messages ever.
JOIN THE AMEND THE RAVE ACT — A CAMPAIGN FOR FESTIVAL SAFETY
Tammy L. Anderson, a sociology and criminal justice professor at the University of Delaware, recently presented an academic paper, “Molly Deaths and Why the Drug War Won’t Clean Up Rave Culture”. Her research has shown that the RAVE Act is just bad public policy and actually discourages organizers from promoting drug safety at their events.
A large coalition is coming together to support a simple idea, to amend the RAVE Act by making it clear that legitimate owners and promoters can take reasonable safety measures to protect their patrons without fear of prosecution.
The proposed language will no doubt be changed many times in this process. But the coalition that is forming is hoping to send language to Congress that may be something like this:
Safety measures taken by property owners and promoters in an effort to reduce the medical risks associated with illegal drug use at their events do not constitute evidence of maintaining a drug involved premise under this Act.
I have had a chance to talk to Dede Goldsmith and meet with members of this coalition. I can tell you that this is a serious campaign and there is a realistic chance to get a bill in front of Congress this fall to do this.
How amazing would it be if we as a festival community came together to change a federal law? Together, we can make festivals safer. Sign the petition, share the knowledge and encourage your fellow festies to do the same.