Pubdate: Sun, 07 May 2000
Source: Toronto Star (CN ON)
Copyright: 2000 The Toronto Star
Contact:  One Yonge St., Toronto ON, M5E 1E6
Fax: (416) 869-4322
Author: Betsy Powell, Entertainment Reporter


Tomorrow's Inquest Looks At Raves, But What Goes Down At These All-Night
Dance Parties Has Been Going Down For Generations

THE CORONER'S inquest probing last fall's drug-related death of Toronto
student Allan Ho starts tomorrow at a time when anti-rave and anti-drug
rhetoric is hitting fever pitch.

Ten days ago, police Chief Julian Fantino called for a national drug
strategy and extended an invitation to Prime Minister Jean Chretien to come
to Toronto to see what the kids are up to.

Mayor Mel Lastman jumped into the fray last week by threatening to pull the
plug on city-sanctioned raves, capping months of hand-wringing over the
all-night dance parties.

And now, into this inflamed mix comes the drug-driven tragedy of Ho, 20, a
Ryerson business student whose death was one of nine in Ontario last year
linked to the use of Ecstasy- an illegal amphetamine derivative called MDMA.

Only three of the victims, including Ho, had attended raves immediately
before their deaths; the attendance of a fourth victim has not been
confirmed, says Dr. Jim Cairns, Ontario's deputy chief coroner.

So why are the electronic dance parties the focus of the inquest, which will
be watched closely by municipal politicians, police, an estimated 50,000
regular ravers - and their parents - plus anyone with a financial stake in
the city's entertainment industry?

The provincial inquest system has a long tradition of using a death to
examine broader issues, says Cairns. "The inquest is going to, I hope, allow
the whole airing of the issue," he says, adding only one such death was
attributed to Ecstasy in 1998 and none in 1997.

"Our office is not taking a stand. Our office is saying there is an issue
here. We feel it's time it be addressed in a proper forum such as an inquest
that can, having heard all things, be valuable to the public in terms of
public safety."

Many in the rave community believe another agenda is at work.

They wonder if the inquest will only further serve to make raves a scapegoat
for the intractable problem of drug abuse, rather than looking at the
dangers related to drug usage in the rave context - overexertion and
dehydration have contributed to the deaths of several ravers in the U.K.

They note there's lots of other snorting and swallowing going on. For
instance, in 1997, there were 62 deaths related directly to ingesting
cocaine, 70 related to heroin, while alcoholic poisoning killed 44 people,
according to the coroner's preliminary figures.

The rave community is not alone in its skepticism.

Even a high-ranking police officer wonders: "To me, this (inquest) looks
more to appease the public than getting at the root of the evil - which is
illegal drug-taking."

But then, targeting youth culture is another verse in the same old song,
well-intentioned and guaranteed to backfire, says Kim Stanford, a nurse and
chairperson of the Toronto Dance Safety Committee. The TDSC includes rave
organizers and city officials who drafted a protocol for safe dance events
council adopted last year.

"We had that with the hippie generation, the punks, new wavers - huge moral
uproar when white kids started doing the Twist," she observes. "The only
explanation I can think of (is it) justifies police budgets in a time of
declining crime."

And what is youth without song? Popular music - not just rock - has often
served as a wellspring for anti-drug crusaders throughout the past century.
Even jazz musicians, as they emerged as the makers of America's foremost
original art form, were singled out as drug-addled agents of the devil.

Often the response is a knee-jerk, Prohibition-style attempt to try to shut
down what's perceived to be the alleged source of the problem, says

In the early 1970s, five separate inquest juries probing deaths from
overdoses ranging from LSD to barbiturates called for the closure of
Rochdale College, a residence connected with the University of Toronto that
had become a haven for hippies.

"Death at Rochdale blamed on morals of youth culture," screamed a headline
in The Star in 1971. "Inquest urges shutdown of Rochdale at once," said

The latest targets, the rave scene and Ecstasy, have been in the news for
months, feeding headlines and, some argue, reactionary politics.

Tomorrow's inquest also comes after the mainstream media's belated discovery
of the rave scene. Some of the coverage has been simplistic and, worse,
distorted, says Will Chang, a lawyer and founding member of the TDSC.

He has a ready example: a local television newscast reporting on the
overdose of Adam Stewart, 18, of Mississauga.

Stewart died after taking Ecstasy two weeks ago in a Lakeshore Rd. W.
apartment. He had not been to a rave. "Then the next scene they're showing
(is) rave footage, people dancing. I'm watching that and saying, 'This is so
ridiculous. They're trying to pin everything on the rave scene.' "

The Ontario Student Drug Use Survey released last year, the longest ongoing
study of adolescent drug use in Canada, shows only 4 per cent of surveyed
students used Ecstasy in 1999. The study, conducted by the Centre for
Addiction and Mental Health, is based on a survey of 4,894 students in
Grades 7 to 13 in 111 Ontario schools.

Seven per cent of the teenagers had used solvents, 14 per cent had used
hallucinogens, 29 per cent had smoked cannabis and 68 per cent had consumed
alcohol. Eleven per cent reported drinking at hazardous or harmful levels.

Still, to proponents of raves, the inquest presents an opportunity to
educate the public and debunk the myths surrounding the parties.

"We're trying to make sure the rave scene doesn't get demonized because of a
few unfortunate incidents," says Louis Sokolov, a lawyer representing the

He finds out tomorrow if the committee has standing at the inquest - which
would allow it to call and cross-examine witnesses.

The witnesses are expected to include representatives of the Toronto Police
Services drug squad, pharmacology experts, rave promoters, as well as
organizers and witnesses who attended the rave in an underground parking lot
at St. Clair and Jane where Ho collapsed. He died 15 hours later in

Among the questions the jury is likely to consider: Should the city continue
to issue permits for legal raves in buildings it owns? How much police
supervision does there need to be? Were there adequate health and safety
precautions in place at the rave where Ho collapsed?

There will also be testimony from expert witnesses about the risks
associated with Ecstasy, including a study co-ordinated by Dr. Joyce
Bernstein of the Toronto Public Health Board that looks at three downtown
hospitals' emergency-room records relating to Ecstasy.

Stanford and others hope the coroner's inquest pays heed to what is called
harm reduction, an approach involving health-care and community workers who
want to bring realistic, unhyped information directly to the doorstep of
high-risk users.

In Toronto, the movement includes the Toronto Rave Information Project, or
TRIP, which goes on-site with literature and advice on how to get through
the night safely, and what to do when a friend looks like he or she is
having problems.

Other jurisdictions, Denmark and San Francisco among them, have begun doing
on-site chemical analysis of the tablets sold as Ecstasy, to ensure users
aren't unknowingly ingesting bogus and adulterated versions of the drug.

"We should try make sure people have the information on how not to hurt
themselves if they do decide to take it," Stanford says.
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