Lawmakers Addicted to the Quick Fix
Two years ago I wrote and directed "Groove," a low-budget independent film that depicted one night at an underground San Francisco rave. Within six months of its release by Sony Pictures Classics, a friend who was training at the Seattle Police Department told me that instructors were using my film as a training video, teaching officers what glow-sticks, chill rooms, candy, black lights and DJs symbolized: Drugs, and lots of them.
For the last three years, as raves have begun to register on the national radar -- in part due to an explosive growth of Ecstasy use among youth in America -- the government has been struggling to address what it sees as a growing epidemic. This week, legislators are poised to vote on the most recent and perhaps most comprehensive attempt to date to control the use of Ecstasy: the shrewdly named "RAVE Act" ("Reducing America's Vulnerability to Ecstasy").
A rewrite of the crack-house laws of the 1980s, this bill aims "to prohibit an individual from knowingly opening, maintaining, managing, controlling, renting, leasing, making available for use, or profiting from any place for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing, or using any controlled substance." In other words, if drugs are found at a warehouse rave, bar, club, loft party or barbecue in someone's backyard, the owner of the venue can get up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $750,000.
This piece of legislation, much like the Seattle police's attempts to use "Groove" as an anti-Ecstasy tool, underscores the naive simplification at the heart of the government's war on this drug. What the lawmakers don't realize -- or, perhaps, are consciously ignoring -- is that this bill isn't going to eliminate the use of Ecstasy, because it's based on vilifying people's desire to use Ecstasy. And because it states the problem in such strong and moralistic terms, the measure is likely to further alienate a population of ravers already disenchanted with the establishment.
The RAVE Act, sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has been making its way through the Senate since mid June. Essentially, it's an amendment to a law from the 1980s that was designed to shut down crack houses by targeting those who ran establishments where drugs were "manufactured or distributed."
Last summer, local police in Miami and New Orleans were trying to use that statute to shut down raves and arrest party promoters, but were successfully challenged by the ACLU. This new version of the bill, however, has been rewritten with broader language that will enable lawmakers to target just about anyone who throws a party where drugs could be present. (As a helpful guide for authorities trying to determine the presence of drugs, the bill again mentions those reliable indicators: glow sticks, chill rooms and pacifiers).
The RAVE Act is a convenient quick fix, the kind of law that legislators love because it easily addresses the concerns of constituents back home. But history has shown us that sound-bite-rich laws don't address the reasons why people do drugs in the first place -- and unless you address these, you'll never solve the problem. For example, the parallels between the law being proposed and those of Prohibition-era America are obvious: In the 1930s, Prohibition attempted to curb the use of alcohol by controlling its production, shutting down the venues that provided it and imposing aggressive penalties on those caught selling it. Yet while all of this activity made for a dramatic show of police force, it mainly succeeded in creating a new class of criminals: When alcohol was outlawed, only outlaws drank (and produced and distributed) alcohol.
Laws like these don't work because there is a fundamental flaw in the government agencies' understanding of drug use. Like Prohibition, as well as the crack-house laws, the RAVE Act assumes that the venues and distribution points of Ecstasy are the key to the problem. As Sen. Grassley said of the RAVE Act, "This legislation will help America's law enforcement go after the latest methods drug dealers are using to push drugs on our kids." According to this logic, if you get rid of the raves and the dealers, the desire to do drugs disappears.
Did lawmakers learn anything from the failures of Prohibition and the crack-house laws? Although the bars were shut down and some crack houses were closed, it didn't really stop anyone from drinking alcohol or smoking crack. Instead, use of intoxicants simply moved into back alleys, private parties and basement speakeasies. The same will happen with raves -- sure, some clubs will shut down, but the drug users will move somewhere else. What the government's approach fails to acknowledge is a fundamental societal axiom: People will always want to get high, regardless of whether there are public places to do it. Why? Because it feels good.
When I was developing "Groove," people I talked to in the rave scene spoke of unshackled joy on the dance floor, a palpable sense of community, emotional release through dancing, and a reprieve from self-consciousness. And that's just through the music. While not all ravers do Ecstasy (a detail entirely missed by the bill's steamrolling generalizations), those who do use it speak of similar experiences: liberating moments of communication and understanding with friends, family and loved ones; insights into personal difficulties; and a sense of peace and well-being regarding their place in the world. Regardless of whether they're real or lasting or even dangerous, if experiences like this are possible through the use of Ecstasy, I don't think anyone needs a dealer to force it on them.
Not that lawmakers would ever admit this. The laughable implausibility of any lawmaker seriously addressing the pleasure of illicit substances underscores just how narrow the range of discourse has become on the subject. Because lawmakers have so thoroughly condemned drug use, it's virtually impossible to suggest more rational solutions to its associated ills without appearing to support criminal activity.
I'm not saying that the Ecstasy problem this bill hopes to address isn't an actual problem. It is, and anyone who thinks otherwise is guilty of the same dangerous simplification as the lawmakers are. As the bill points out, the popular belief about the drug is that it's harmless, but there are credible studies linking Ecstasy use to brain damage, mood disorders and aggressive behavior in some users. And because of the powerful experience it produces in the user, it can lead to addiction and overdoses. Lawmakers also are rightly concerned that cutthroat entrepreneurs are hijacking the rave phenomenon for their own profit while knowingly placing those in attendance in danger.
But what exacerbates these dangers is the mistrust most users have of government sources stating these facts. Worse, the credible sources of drug facts that have emerged from within the scene -- harm-reduction groups like Dancesafe, which use peer education to teach ravers about the dangers of Ecstasy -- are under government pressure to close their doors because they're considered to be tacitly condoning drug use.
If this bill passes, a handful of potentially innocent promoters will likely be sent to prison, a bunch of raves will be shut down in full view of the awaiting media, and the government will proclaim victory. But the apparent success will barely mask the bill's ultimate failure: As it is written, it cannot change people's minds about Ecstasy use because it fails to understand the people it purports to protect. Instead, the measure insults them by calling them criminals for something they not only want to do, but see as a positive aspect in their lives. This only serves to further alienate them from a system they are rebelling against in the first place.
Unfortunately, exploring the question of why people are drawn to drug use and integrating these findings into a more informed bill is a task too subtle for a political system reduced to placating confused constituents with initiatives that ignore the realities of drugs and their potential victims. Until lawmakers can somehow acknowledge the psychological and emotional complexity of Ecstasy use and the culture that surrounds it, they cannot hope to create an effective means of solving any problems associated with the drug, its users or purveyors. Even worse, perhaps, is the erosion of credibility that these legislators sustain with every ham-fisted attempt to address drug use. In promoting such a narrow and misguided sense of morality, these politicians lose what little power they have to keep voters -- particularly young ones -- safe.
Greg Harrison is a filmmaker in Los Angeles.