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How the war on drugs made raves more dangerous

A DJ mixing music.
A DJ mixing music.

The war on drugs is rife with unintended consequences: from increasing racial disparities in the criminal justice system to exacerbating international drug cartel violence.

A 2014 paper published in Contexts suggests that a decade-old anti-drug policy may have had the unintended consequence of making party drugs, like MDMA (also known as Molly or ecstasy), more dangerous. The Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act of 2003 aimed to prohibit organizers of electronic dance parties, known as raves, from allowing drugs at their events. But the law made venues and organizers so paranoid about anti-drug crackdowns that they stopped doing anything that would implicate them in illicit drug use, including providing medical or educational services for drug users.

The consequences of neglecting medical services can be life-threatening: Wesleyan University said 11 students were hospitalized on Sunday after an apparent mass overdose on the club drug known as Molly, and one of the students is in critical condition, Bloomberg reported.

Tammy Anderson of the University of Delaware studied the rave scene for years for her book, Rave Culture. Her paper in Context details the issues with the law and its effects on raves.

The law expanded another anti-drug policy


People dance at an Indonesian rave. (Agung Parameswara / Getty Images News)

The RAVE Act threatened commercial enterprises with a $250,000 fine and other civil penalties for knowingly leasing, renting, using, or profiting from a space where illicit drugs are being stored, manufactured, distributed, or used.

"The idea was that you can go after drug use by holding the promoters of events or the owners of nightclubs responsible for drug use that happened within their premises or at their parties," Anderson said.

The law effectively strengthened the crack house law, which was passed as part of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. In the middle of the crack cocaine scare of the 1980s, federal lawmakers decided to punish business owners — motel and car repair shop owners in particular — who allowed drug use and distribution at their establishments, which became colloquially known as crack houses.

Law enforcement used the crack house law to punish rave organizers even before the RAVE Act passed. But the RAVE Act made it a lot easier for the Drug Enforcement Administration and other law enforcement agencies to penalize rave promoters for drug use.

Anderson credited the RAVE Act for effectively eliminating the underground rave scene in which "rogue promoters" openly allowed and even encouraged drug use. But raves have gone mainstream since then, and they're now multimillion-dollar dance events that attract thousands of people. It's at these huge events where the unintended effects of the RAVE Act now pop up.

The law's passage made rave organizers paranoid


A rave in the United Kingdom. (Ollie Millington / Redferns via Getty Images)

The RAVE Act and crack house laws only punish organizers who knowingly allow drug use to happen at their events or premises. If a raver uses drugs and the event organizer doesn't appear to be aware of it, the organizer can't get in legal trouble.

Rave organizers told Anderson that, as a result, they try to avoid looking like they're aware of drug use at their events. They don't, for example, offer drug tests, which would let ravers test substances for harmful or deadly contaminants before consuming them. Some organizers don't even offer free bottled water to help prevent heat strokes, a potentially fatal side-effect of some drug use on the dance floor.

"Those precautions would potentially incriminate them," Anderson said. "It would be a sign that they know drug use is happening at their event."

This is an issue Anderson saw first-hand while conducting research for her book. When ravers got sick and even vomited as a result of their drug use, security would sometimes kick the ravers out instead of getting them medical help. Event officials told Anderson they couldn't risk being held liable by acknowledging anyone's drug use, even if it meant endangering some attendees.

Prior to the RAVE Act, Anderson said event organizers, even those who held underground raves, commonly offered medical and educational services for illicit drug users. Many promoters even partnered with harm-reduction service providers, like DanceSafe, as well.

Shelley Goldsmith

Nineteen-year-old Shelley Goldsmith died of a heat stroke at a rave after she consumed ecstasy. (Amend the RAVE Act)

Some groups have urged rave organizers to provide harm-reduction services despite the risks associated with the law. In Washington state, a local affiliate of DanceSafe petitioned rave organizers to offer education and drug testing to event-goers.

"If we are there educating people about drug use, whether or not they're using drugs at that particular venue, that might indicate to law enforcement that the venue is being operated for the purpose of drug use and might make them liable," Nathan Messer, a spokesperson for DanceSafe, told Washington state TV station KING5. "And so they just want to avoid it all together."

On August 31, a year after her 19-year-old daughter died at a rave, Dede Goldsmith launched Amend the RAVE Act to petition Congress to allow event promoters to host harm-reduction services without risking liability. (Read Vox's in-depth story about Goldsmith's call for reform.)

"I don't believe it was ever the intention of the RAVE Act to discourage commonsense public safety measures at these concerts," Goldsmith said in a statement. "But in today's music scene, that is exactly what is happening. Those measures are not being implemented and organizers point to the RAVE Act as the reason why. By amending the RAVE Act, we will protect millions of young people and prevent the kind of tragedy that happened to me and my family."

Anderson, too, suggested the federal government should acknowledge drug use is going to happen at these events and allow event organizers to set up safeguards for when something goes wrong. She said clubs and promoters should keep security measures, like drug-sniffing dogs, to keep illicit substances out of their events in the first place, but they shouldn't fool themselves into thinking the measures will completely avoid drug use.

"If you can add language to the RAVE Act that makes an exception [for medical care and education], I think that's a very wise course of action," Anderson said. "The club owner ought to be able to call for medical assistance and provide medical assistance at the site without getting in trouble."