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Countdown to Ecstasy

Part two of an investigation into rave culture and drug use, and how law-enforcement agencies are dealing with the problem



"Jazz," Artie Shaw once said, "was born in a whiskey barrel, grew up on marijuana, and is about to expire on heroin."

Drugs took Charlie Parker, and figured heavily in the premature deaths of Billie Holiday and Bud Powell. But jazz survived.

Fast forward to the mid-'80s. A new culture is now born, it too founded in music: rave, techno, dance culture--a fully realized culture with a sound, a style, a motion, an ambience entirely its own. A culture to which, once again, the marginalized are drawn, primarily youth.

"Kids gravitate to dance culture because it offers a sense of community and acceptance," says Dustianne North, a social worker and Ph.D. candidate at the University of California at Los Angeles in community building and social change movements. "It's such a better reality for us than the one that suggests we segregate ourselves in gated suburbs and fear anyone who doesn't look, dress, act and spend money the same way we do."

That fear is often turned on youth.

"Young people are easily demonized," writes journalist Annette Fuentes, "when their worlds don't coincide with ours."

Rave culture doesn't coincide. With anything. And, as was the case with early jazz, an association with drugs has underscored alienation.

In truth, the press has never been especially kind to rave culture. But the past year or so has been particularly rough.

"The media's representation of dance/rave culture has often fluctuated," says Will Patterson, spokesperson for the Electronic Music Defense & Education Fund (EM:DEF). "The rave scene is 15 years old, arguably older by some accounts. But the past year saw some of the toughest media ever, partly because the scene grew, and partly because [the National Institute on Drug Abuse] released their 'club drug' initiative."

The initiative to which Patterson refers is titled: "Club Drugs: Raves, Risks, and Research."

Club drugs--primarily a reference to Ecstasy (MDMA)--are used in rave clubs. But just as all jazz enthusiasts weren't shooting smack, all ravers aren't ingesting Ecstasy.

"What the media show is only the very worst events out there," says North, "or they portray an event in the worst possible light. And it's always through the lens of the drug war. Always with a hysterical, biased, combat-oriented angle. Always related to the question of drugs."

Drug-related press was visited upon rave culture several months back when "Operation Rave Review" in New Orleans, a joint federal/local effort, resulted in the owners of the State Palace Theater and a rave promoter being charged under the federal crackhouse statute, held responsible for drug use in their venue. A plea agreement was reached, which the American Civil Liberties Union is now challenging on the grounds that prohibiting such "paraphernalia" as pacifiers and glowsticks, common rave accouterments, is unconstitutional.

Nationwide, club owners and promoters are concerned.

Raleigh has the most consistently active rave scene in the Triangle. Ecstasy can be found in Raleigh: The Raleigh Police Department is finding it. They report that since July 2000, they've made 34 seizures totaling 5,137 pills, which they've valued at $128,450. Of those 5,137 pills, 2,100 were brought in from July to December of last year, 3,037 in the seven months since.

"We have been noticing quite a sizable rise in people caught with MDMA," says Deborah Shandles, a Wake County assistant district attorney.

"I think there are a lot of different means that law enforcement can use [to get to the drugs], and the Raleigh police are using several." Shandles mentions community policing and keeping a close eye on club and party venues where the drugs are known to have been used. "But my feeling," she says, "is they're being used just about anywhere."

Charlotte, among a number of other cities nationwide, now has a "dance hall" ordinance, more strictly regulating clubs, particularly those that admit an underage crowd. Shandles knows of no such initiative in Raleigh: "But it's not inconceivable."

Relative to what's going on in a number of cities across the country, local law enforcement and those who organize rave events are, in general, getting along alright.

"Relations with local law enforcement vary from district to district," says local promoter and DJ Chris Oberle. He says promoters do whatever they can to keep everything kosher. But: "There are only a few things we can do as promoters to deal with the association of drugs with the scene. The first of these, of course, is to discourage their use. We do this, clearly indicating at the door that drugs are not tolerated at our events. We also search people at the door and employ off-duty police officers to stand at the entrance to provide a certain 'presence.'"

But fear of prosecution sometimes works against everyone's best interests.

"Security guards at events are afraid to take people who need medical attention to hospitals," says North, describing the current national climate, "because the venue will be vilified for drug use that takes place on their property unbeknownst to them--even if they take all necessary security measures and clearly have no involvement."

The procedural plan of Operation Rave Review substantiates such fears. Included in its five-point process are, "Identify rave promoters" and "Compile emergency medical service (EMS) records."

"Drug abuse and addiction, unsafe sex, unhealthy lifestyles permeate every segment of society," says North. "People who like to dance need help with these issues just like everybody else. But [dance] culture is not the enemy--it's important to us, and we believe in it. It's the best tool we have for finding balance in our lives."

For those who are a part of the culture, raves fill a void and provide a high.

"I live and breathe techno music," says Oberle. "The ultimate high for me is looking out over the dance floor at one of our events and seeing hundreds of people dancing to some pumping techno."

Education of what the rave scene is all about is critical, and it's available. Hyperreal (www.hyperreal) is an excellent source, as is EM:DEF ( EM:DEF has also been advocating meetings between law enforcement and promoters since its inception. DanceSafe ( is a national peer-education organization with an active presence at rave events in various cities.

"It can't be a coincidence," Fuentes writes, "that the shift in adult attitudes [toward youth] began roughly a generation after the height of political and social movements created by young people of all colors. Policy-makers now propelling anti-youth agendas remember how effective young people can be as a force for change."

"The public needs to listen to its children," North concludes, "ask them why this movement is important, educate themselves about the risks, and help us make our way of life healthier.

"We've got to stop beating the 'just say no' drum--kids tuned it out a long time ago." EndBlock

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