Editorial: Revisiting The RAVE Act and today’s need for drug safety reform
“What happens next?”
It is a question often asked to DJs and industry leaders — one that has fueled anxiety following dance music’s rise to popularity as some begin to fear a plateau in the genre’s financial and cultural success. It’s only been five years or so that electronic dance music has infiltrated the mainstream in the United States, catching the attention of prime time media and serious business backings when it emerged from the underground into venues large enough to host massive raves and festivals.
The elusive equivocation that is the “tipping point of EDM” has been on the tip of everyone’s tongue since its first rise to mainstream prominence. Underneath the surface of neon wear, repetitive track formulas, and TMZ-style DJ drama, the revolving door of dance music plights ultimately cycles back to the late 1980s.
Like a broken record, every electronic music fan is well aware that drugs are and have always been deeply associated with the genre and culture since its inception. Born from the underground into taboo warehouse scenes, the interconnection was unavoidable for the forbidden and largely illegal lifestyle that first encouraged electronic music to flourish in a time when it was the minority.
Understanding the severity of the modern day dance music dilemma requires looking back to the late 1980s – back to a drug pandemic that struck such a strong fear in the US that billions of dollars worth of legislation was passed in order to regain control. The 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, put into place by Ronald Reagan to target the infectious and growing population of crack cocaine users, utilized threats of prison time penalties to stamp out the root of the drug addiction: the dealers.
Specifically, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act established yet another statute law that would eventually come to affect drug culture of the modern day. The Crack House Law, part of the 1986 Act, deemed it a felony to “knowingly open, lease, rent, use, or maintain any place for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing, or using any controlled substance.”
In 2001, the focus of the Crack House Statute began to migrate. In New Orleans, James Estopinal was indicted by the Statute “simply for staging the electronic music events known as ‘raves.'” Better known today as Disco Donnie — promoter of dozens of festivals and shows focused on the Midwest and East Coast of the US including Sunset Music Festival, Something Wicked, Sun City Music Festival, and many others — Estopinal’s case became the first warning shot fired by the government, meant to alarm all present and coming rave organizers.
Two years later, the Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act was passed. Strangely enough, the Act, sponsored by the current Vice President of the US Joe Biden, was passed without second thought as it was attached to the AMBER Alert Act, albeit a far cry from its partnered child-abduction prevention laws. The name of the RAVE Act couldn’t spell out the real target any louder or clearer. As Vox outlines, the RAVE Act and now-amended Crack House Statute “only punishes organizers who knowingly allow drug use to happen at their events or premises. If a raver uses drugs and the event organizers doesn’t appear to be aware of it, the organizer can’t get in legal trouble.”
The message was clear: Raves, and everything related, were unwelcome and anyone attempting to nourish the culture would be threatened with years of prison time and thousands of dollars in fines. While the RAVE Act’s original goal to entirely flush out rave culture was quickly disregarded and arguably stomped out with the rise of Insomniac, Ultra, SFX, and the plethora of electronic music events blossoming all over the States, the Act’s consequences eventually began to create a new, unforeseen concern.
During an honest Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) session, Pasquale Rotella answered a question wondering why his events, also previously affected by and nearly entirely shut down by ecstasy-induced incidents and deaths, don’t make use of harm reduction organizations like DanceSafe. DanceSafe promotes drug awareness and education and provides health-conscious information that could potentially save lives in an uninformed festival or rave environment. He responded:
Imagine, behind each spectacular, multi-million dollar festival project is a promoter at risk of facing time in jail for an incident completely out of their hands. Fear is the reason why festivals are constantly fighting the losing battle of attempting to tightly control their fanbase by continuously adding seemingly harmless items to the extensive list of banned items, a decision that has consequently made our peers, our friends, and our generation the most vulnerable.
Our own homeland has confined its dance music lovers into a trap, forcibly turning a blind eye to educating youths about the dangers of drugs while simultaneously pushing industry leaders away from providing any assistance or preventative care to those that may indulge. It comes as no surprise that 15-year old Sasha Rodriguez and Olivia Rotondo and Jeffrey Russ were just a handful of the many lives lost that have fallen through the cracks. For years, dance music culture operated with blissful ignorance, content to simply rejoice that electronic music even had a fighting chance in mainstream culture – but now, at the helm of EDM’s influence, it’s time to repose the question.
What happens next?
It’s not to say that the push for reform has been completely stagnant but the US is hopelessly behind its more open-minded peers. In Europe, a longtime haven for dance music culture, drug use is considered a public health issue rather than a political one. Festival and promoters focus on spreading drug education, going so far as to make secure drug testing kits available to their audiences — judgment and consequence free. In Australia, Q-Dance fearlessly took to their blog forum to warn attendees of a dangerous batch of ecstasy pills with poisonous components with pictures and informative details.
In the US, Electric Zoo spread a viral drug PSA video across the Internet, and even Diplo put aside his usually humorous antics to spread awareness with his chilling new music video for “Techno.” The problem, however, still remains and despite all of the known risks and shock-inducing headlines, people will continue to experiment with drugs.
In 2013, a 19-year old student at the University of Virginia died of a drug-induced heat stroke in Washington DC’s Echostage. Instead of chastising the culture and vilifying the music, her mother launched ‘Amend the RAVE Act,’ a campaign to challenge Congress to reevaluate the legislature and prevent what she believes was a combination of the Act “preventing the implementation of common safety measures at these events.” Her website explains the desperate need to challenge the current language of the Act in order to put safety ahead of the drug policy.
What comes next is revising the RAVE Act: reshaping the way people approach drug culture in relation to electronic music. Today is the time to make a move because it is real, because it hits too close to home, and because one drug-related death is already one too many. Coming together to make ‘Amending the RAVE Act’ a reality and being aware about the history and the drugs is just the beginning of bridging the gap between policy and culture.