Feds Seek to Shut Music Clubs

May 3, 2001 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — The federal government is seeking to shut down “rave” music and dance clubs in an effort to wipe out the drug MDMA, which is known as ecstasy, Reuters reported.

Joe Keefe, chief of operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Washington, told Reuters in an interview that use of ecstasy at rave houses is rampant and growing, and that promoters and proprietors of these venues are running criminal enterprises that encourage and facilitate dangerous drug use.

“Kids are overdosing at these parties,” said Keefe. “They have what they call ‘chill rooms’ where the kids go because they’re so overheated because of the dancing and the drug use. They’re not discouraging the drug use, they’re providing an environment and paraphernalia that goes along with it.”

Keefe said this includes baby pacifiers used to keep the hopped-up kids from grinding their teeth and fluorescent light sticks used to amplify the hallucinogenic effects of the drug.

Rejecting the argument of rave operators that they search for drugs and confiscate what they find — and actively discourage the use of ecstasy and other drugs — Keefe insists they “are doing a pretty good job of helping facilitate it” by providing chill rooms, ice water, pacifiers and other items.

“Although we believe the government may have the best intentions, our basic contention is this policy is detrimental and counterproductive” to the end of discouraging drug use and keeping kids safe, said Eric Tomasi, spokesman for Responsible Party Movement, the Baltimore-Washington chapter of DanceSafe.

DanceSafe, a national organization that grew out of the rave scene, seeks to “reduce drug abuse and empower young people to make healthy, informed lifestyle choices,” according to the group’s Web site at www.dancesafe.org .

Tomasi said the group’s focus on “harm reduction” accepts the fact that kids will use drugs and focuses on educating them about dangers, including overheating and dehydration associated with ecstasy, impurities in street drugs and other issues.

“If the government succeeds in shutting down the clubs,” he said, “it is our fear that these venues are going to go back underground … in unsafe and unlicensed ventures that don’t have adequate ventilation or adequate water supply or quite honestly adequate fire prevention.”

Such concerns have not stopped the DEA and Justice Department from trying, although they have yet to succeed in shutting down more than a handful of clubs.

Those that have closed their doors, including one run by Robert Brunet and James “Donnie” Estopinal in New Orleans, did so after federal prosecutors filed charges against the proprietors in a controversial and unprecedented use of a U.S. “crack house statute” used in many cities to shut down the houses where crack cocaine dealers set up shop.

Civil liberties lawyers, warning that the same statute might later be used to shut down rock clubs where marijuana is smoked or jazz clubs that serve an occasional minor, say U.S. Attorney Eddie Jordan in New Orleans is planning to charge Brunet and Estopinal using even more draconian legal means.

Graham Boyd, a lawyer with the Drug Policy Litigation Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Jordan had threatened during failed plea bargaining to reindict the two under a racketeering statute for running a “continuing criminal enterprise,” a charge that carries a 20-year prison term.

“What the government is trying to do here is criminalize an activity that takes place all over the country all of the time — which is holding a concert,” said Boyd.

“It’s as if in the 1920s Prohibition authorities said there can be no more jazz clubs because of alcohol or marijuana use,” he added. “What this does is allow the DEA and the government to look tough but endangers the people who attend these concerts,” Boyd added, said. “The Supreme Court has said and many lower courts have agreed that the performance of music is protected by the First Amendment.”

Boyd predicts that the federal government’s campaign to shut down rave clubs will ultimately fail.

“I think we all know that drugs are used at musical venues … but it is only this form of electronic music that is used as a proxy for real drug enforcement,” he said, arguing the DEA should focus on busting traffickers and leave clubs alone.

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