When Dancing is Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Dance

In the movie "Footloose," a group of town elders tried to keep dancing illegal, leading to a revolt by the youth of the town. This seemingly absurd plot is being played out today in the U.S. In recent weeks, a crackdown has begun on "raves" -- all night dance parties where some participants are taking drugs like MDMA (3-4 methylenedioxymethamphetamine), aka ecstasy.

Dance clubs and parties are being shut down or are encountering serious scrutiny. Attendees are having their crotches and bras searched for drugs upon entering, and search lights have been used to scan crowds for drug takers. It's gotten so absurd that the state of Florida has illegalized glow sticks because they are favored by ravers. Students who wear plastic jewelry, supposedly a marker for drug use, are being pulled out of class and having their parents alerted by school authorities.

What's all the fuss about?

Raving is really nothing new. It has a lot in common with rites such as the Eleusinian mysteries, the ancient Greek communal festivals involving the mysterious drug Soma. It also mimics Dionysian festivals, the American Indian long dance, Buddhist chanting, revivalist meetings, sports events, Grateful Dead concerts and the disco craze. In each of these experiences, participants lose themselves to a collective entity in a common ecstatic experience that bonds them together.

Most primitive cultures used some form of psychotropic substance in adolescent initiation rites, but our Judeo-Christian sensibility, morphed into Puritan "thou-shalt-not" ism, forbids it. However, repression hasn't stopped adolescents from craving the drug-induced vision quest that has traditionally been a doorway to adulthood. The fact that this behavior is deemed illegal and immoral means adults aren't around to provide any guidance or moderating influence to their children who reject the simplistic "just say no" message.

The jury is still out over how harmful occasional MDMA use is, especially compared with other drugs. But our government's enforcement-heavy response probably won't have much effect on its use, and almost certainly will increase its harmful effects.

The relatively few problems seen at raves have occurred largely due to heatstroke and dehydration fostered by unlicensed, overcrowded venues without adequate ventilation or drinking water. Tablets sold as "ecstasy" containing a range of other drugs are especially problematic, and impossible to control due to an unregulated, increasingly lucrative underground market.

With the exception of San Francisco, which is working on ordinances requiring clubs to provide water and safety information at raves, our public health departments have taken no action to promote safety at raves. Instead, Congress is introducing bills to ratchet up sentencing for crimes involving MDMA (since that tactic has worked so well in the past). One alarming bill would even make it illegal to post information about the drug on the internet, putting in peril not only the first amendment, but also any organization distributing harm reduction information about MDMA.

One such group is Dancesafe, a rapidly growing organization of volunteer peer educators that has stepped in where our institutions have failed, handing out information about heatstroke, research studies, side effects and after effects at raves across the country. The group also tests pills to see if they contain MDMA or other drugs, a function which arguably should be handled by our Food and Drug Administration.

England's Police Association and Switzerland's highest court have recommended MDMA be treated as a "soft" drug like cannabis, as did the U.S. administrative law judge who reviewed the evidence in 1986. An inquest jury in Toronto investigating the tragic death of Allen Ho, 21, at a rave determined that the venue was unsafe and recommended city permitting of rave sites and the establishment of safety protocols, including the dissemination of safety information. But such reasonable measures seem to have little place in the U.S. drug war, which has increasingly been described as a near-religious "crusade."

When will the U.S. begin to see drug use as a health and social issue, instead of abdicating responsibility to law enforcement and its heavy-handed tactics? When will we come to grips with mankind's history of drug use, and stop our increasingly harmful attempts to stamp out those drugs we have arbitrarily deemed illicit? When will we examine what is inherently unhealthy and hypocritical about our alcohol-swigging, nicotine-sucking, Prozac-popping culture, which likes to criminalize and harass its young, even for something as harmless as dancing?

Neitzsche said, "I could not believe in a god that does not dance." In our Puritanical attempts to become "drug free," we may end up with a society that no longer knows how.

Ellen Komp is a program associate at The Lindesmith Center-San Francisco and a member of the San Francisco Rave/Club Drug Task Force.

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