Pubdate: Thu, 24 May 2001
Source: Rolling Stone (US)
Copyright: 2001 Straight Arrow Publishers Company, L.P.
Author: Jenny Eliscu
Bookmark: (Raves)


Rave Promoters Busted In Wave Of Drug Crackdowns At Dance Clubs Around
The U.S.

ROBERT BRUNET IS NOT THE KIND OF GUY you'd imagine being accused of
running a drug den. His family had been in the New Orleans "theater
business for three generations, and Brunet - a married
thirty-six-year-old with three young daughters - had staged dozens of
successful raves at the local State Palace Theatre. His security guards
ejected or arrested anyone caught taking drugs, and he kept two
ambulances parked outside the venue, in case one of any of the 3,000
ravers in attendance got sick or hurt. The whole operation, he figured,
was running smoothly. That is, until last August 26th, when agents from
the Drug Enforcement Administration raided the State Palace looking for
evidence that the theater was being used as a haven for Ecstasy.

In January, Brunet, his brother Brian and promoter James "Donnie"
Estopinal were indicted under the federal "crack-house statute." That
law, passed in 1986, was designed to jail landlords who let their
properties become overrun with drugs. But now the DEA and U.S. Attorney
Eddie Jordan are applying it to music promoters in an attempt to shut
down raves. The DEA argues that raves, by definition, support the use of
drugs like Ecstasy, Special K, Rohypnol and GHB. To the astonishment of
many, Jordan and the DEA also argue that the availability of such "drug
paraphernalia" as pacifiers, glow sticks and even bottled water is
evidence that promoters condone drug use.

If the charges against the Brunets and Estopinal stick, they face
sentences of twenty years to life in prison. And the DEA vows that if
the prosecution is successful, it will attempt to jail rave promoters
around the country.

The DEAs crackdown on raves is another byproduct of the war on drugs -
specifically, the DEA believes it can curb the use of Ecstasy among
teens by targeting rave culture. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DeL), who authored
the crack-house legislation, is a proponent of the law's new use. In
March, he endorsed using the law to put rave promoters in jail and also
encouraged local authorities to pass laws to stop raves. In Chicago,
Orlando and Seattle, authorities have already done that. And rave
promoters in Los Angeles and Denver report that local authorities have
made it increasingly difficult to stage events.

In Chicago - where underground parties gave birth to house music in the
Eighties - club owners and managers, event producers and even performers
can be fined as much as $10,000 for participating in an unlicensed rave.
Mayor Richard Daley has also announced that he plans to apply the city's
"drug- and ganghouse ordinance," a local version of the crack-house
statute, to imprison promoters and club owners. Orlando's Orange County
recently instituted a sixty-day "Dance Hall Moratorium" prohibiting new
dance clubs from opening. County officials are working on a2A.Nt.
nightlife curfew as well as felony background checks on late-night-club
owners. Seattle's 11 teen dance ordinance" requires kids under eighteen
to be accompanied to raves by a parent.

Convinced that all this legislative action constitutes a threat to the
First Amendment, the American Civil Liberties Union has come to
Estopinal's and the Brunets' aid in the New Orleans case. "The
government is trying to get at what it sees as a social ill Ecstasy - by
going after an expressive speech, which is the music," says the ACLU's
Graham Boyd, chief drug-policy litigator. Boyd, who is acting as
Estopinal's lawyer, considers this a free-speech case: "Performance of
music to an audience is speech. And from z Live Crew to Marilyn Manson,
when the government tries to censor music, they lose."

Estopinal and the Brunets were originally going to plead guilty,
convinced that they could never win the case against them. But once Boyd
and the ACLU got involved, the three changed their pleas, causing the
U.S. attorney's office to dismiss the indictments and reopen its
investigation to find more evidence. Jordan is expected to seek new
indictments shortly.

Legal experts predict that Jordan will have a tough time applying the
"crack-house statute" to the State Palace Theatre because he will have
to convince a jury that the raves were held with the intention of
promoting drug use. But as Ecstasy use climbs at a faster rate than that
of any other drug, raves have become an obvious target of investigation.
The Drug Abuse Warning Network, which monitors drug-related
emergency-room visits and mortality statistics, noted that
Ecstasy-related visits rose from 1,143 in 1994 to 2,850 in 1999, the
last full year for which data is available. And in 2000, the DEA seized
more than 3 million tablets of Ecstasy - a 200 percent increase from the
previous year. "Parents send their kids to what they think are
non-alcoholic dance parties," says DEA spokesman Tony Ryan. "And they're
leaving in body bags. When we can show that these people had knowledge
and sponsored the event, then they're liable."

Rave promoters argue that sponsoring an event is not the equivalent of
encouraging drug use. Like the Brunets and Estopinal, many promoters and
venue managers take strong measures to ensure that their parties are
safe, using security guards and, in some cases, employing undercover
cops to patrol the venues and boot out anyone selling or using drugs.

Denver promoter Jason Bills has staged major events without incident
since 1993, investing six-figure budgets in productions that feature
everyone from underground house kingpin Armand Van Helden to DJ Jazzy
Jeff. In March, Bills' Together Productions booked a rave at Denver's
National Western Complex, which had already gotten the licenses and
permits necessary to hold the rave. The week of the event, Bills got a
call from the city attorney's office, advising him that there was a "new
permit" required to throw a rave. "It was called a dance-assembly
permit," Bills recalls. "I went into their office, and the people there
hadn't even heard of it. I think they just wanted to give us more hoops
to jump through."

Bills continues, "I think it's ridiculous to assume that the sole reason
I'm doing an event at the Denver Coliseum is so that people can do
drugs. We do parties in convention centers and places where professional
sports teams are playing, and we'd like to be held to the same standards
as any other concert promoter."

"There's a perception that raves aren't music-driven at all," says
Pasquale Rotella, whose Los Angeles production company, Insomniac,
attracts more than 30,000 people to events featuring talent such as
Moby, Fatboy Slim and Underworld. "People say, `You're there for the
music? Yeah, right!' But our events cost a million dollars these days.
We coordinate everything with the local authorities. Now it seems like
they don't even want to work with you." Rotella says that a major
concert venue where he has held two raves a year since 1995 recently
bristled at the idea of adding a third event. "Five months ago they
would have been completely excited about it," he says. "Now they're
like, `We don't know.'"

The problem, promoters say, is the growing bias against any event that
bears the name "rave." Cris Campbell, an attorney who works with
Together and several other Denver promotion companies, says that city
officials have approached the promoters he represents, telling them, "If
you host electronic shows, we will find a way to shut you down." And
Bills and Rotella both report that when they apply for event permits,
the first thing city officials ask is, "Is this a rave?" When they
answer yes, they're either told that they can't hold the event or are
given a long list of requirements: no alcohol, no one under eighteen,
limited hours. "Sixteen-year-olds can go see 'N Sync at the Pepsi
Center," Bills says. "So why can't they come to my show and see Armand
Van Helden?"

The ACLU's Boyd points out that the problems these promoters encounter
evince the unconstitutionality of the rave crackdown. "They're using the
heavy hand of government to intimidate people's speech," he says.
Campbell agrees. He's organizing a group called Save Our Scene to raise
money for a lawsuit that would challenge the constitutionality of the
Denver anti-rave ordinances. Campbell argues that the ordinances not
only violate the First Amendment but also amount to what he calls the
"selective prosecution" prohibited by the Fourteenth Amendment. He's
organizing a grass-roots campaign to lobby county officials, "to get
them to understand who we are, what we do, how we do it - and to invite
them to work with us to make these events happen in the safest possible

For now, cultivating relationships with local authorities could be the
best way for promoters and club owners to stay out of trouble while
still putting on a safe event. Last year in Detroit, DJ Carl Craig
organized the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, with full support from
city officials. In the course of a weekend, the festival attracted more
than a million people, and, outside of incidental arrests, there were no
substantial problems. Now, Craig says, the city has welcomed the
festival back with open arms for at least the next two years. And New
York promoter Matt E. Silver, who booked the rave events for ig's
Woodstock, points to Germany's Love Parade as an example of how American
rave organizers might win government favor. "The Love Parade was born
out of protest against all the anti-rave laws in Berlin," he says. "It
has turned into a major economic boon for the city, and they're bringing
in millions in tax revenue in one weekend."

Given the government's current strategy, an American Love Parade seems
unlikely anytime soon. But promoters agree that regardless of how hard
authorities stomp on the scene, the music won't stop. "Whether they
convict us or not," says Robert Brunet, "they can't squash an artistic
form. It will find an outlet, one way or another."

The DEA argues that the availability of such "drug paraphernalia" as
glow sticks and bottled water is evidence that promoters condone drug
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