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Law enforcement’s Ecstasy chic hasn’t hit the District yet.
In May, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration wrote a letter to Ann Landers warning parents across the country about the danger of raves.
“Dear Ann: As the Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the parent of three teenagers, I am extremely concerned about the problem of Ecstasy and the look-alike killer drug PMA,” wrote Donnie R. Marshall. “Many of your readers are also parents who are not familiar with the ‘rave’ scene where these drugs are readily available to their children.”
Raves may be news to Ann Landers readers, but they have been around the United States for about a decadethe cultural equivalent of “forever.” What were once clandestine dance parties with electronic music in abandoned warehouses now attract crowds of several thousand to mainstream clubs.
Marshall and law enforcement agencies have recently gotten hip to the seamier side of the culture, and officials from New York to New Orleans who consider raves synonymous with rampant use of the psychedelic drug Ecstasy have clamped down on the party. They’ve prosecuted promoters under the federal “crackhouse” statute and targeted “drug paraphernalia” such as Glow Sticks and pacifiers.
Yet the nation’s capital, just minutes away from the DEA’s Arlington, Va., headquarters, remains a safe haven for the rave scene. For now, at least.
“Thank God, D.C. has been very lenient. There’s no restrictions,” says John McDonald, the 26-year-old rave promoter who runs the Fairfax-based label and production company Vinyl Lab Music. “And this is the politicians’ city. It’s very surprising.”
McDonald and some other promoters make such remarks with a catch in the voice, as if touting their good fortune might jinx it. So far, though, local law enforcement officials say they have eschewed the Ecstasy chic so prevalent among cops in other American cities and towns.
“It’s not like we go shutting down raves [in the District]” says Laura DiCesar, public information officer for the DEA’s Washington division. “They’re looking at kids with a couple hundred pills in a club. We’re trying to catch the people with 1,000 pills in the airport.”
Not surprisingly, rave promoters and local cops part ways on their perceptions of why District raves haven’t become another battleground in the war on drugs. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Detective Glen Kline says the narcotics department has adopted a “wait-and-see” attitude toward a rave scene that has not caused serious problems in D.C. thus far. Promoters, on the other hand, seem to believe that the authorities are taking a more visionary stance: Raves are about more than illegal drugs.
Ecstasy, an illegal methamphetamine that’s chemically known as MDMA, often generates feelings of euphoria, increased energy, and reduced social inhibitions in users. It’s been a part of drug culture since before the rave scene first washed ashore in the United States in the early ’90s, going by pseudonyms including “E,” “X,” and the “hug drug.”
Ecstasy’s adverse effects can spoil some of the rave buzz. The drug raises body temperature several degrees. Combined with the exertions of frenetic dancing, its use can lead to heat exhaustion and dehydration. Also, users also have a hard time discerning if they are taking pure Ecstasy or a potentially lethal look-alike drug, such as the hallucinogen PMA (paramethoxyamphetamine).
The electronic music scene thrived in European clubs in the early ’90s, but the first U.S. rave parties often took place in abandoned buildings. The locations were usually kept secret until the last minute to keep authorities away from parties that often involved trespassing and illegal drugs.
Certain trappings became de rigueur at raves. Pacifiers or candy alleviated the teeth grinding that’s one of Ecstasy’s common side effects. Dust masks and Vicks VapoRub “enhanced” the drug’s sensations, and Glow Sticks added a visual touch.
Though raves have been stateside for the better part of a decade, only recently has law enforcement taken stringent measures against the Ecstasy strand of the culture.
After several overdoses were linked to late-night raves at the State Palace Theatre in New Orleans, three promoters were indicted in January 2001 under the crackhouse statute. The 1986 law was intended to punish landlords who let their properties become overrun with drugs; this was its first use against rave promoters. In June, the company Barbecue of New Orleans Inc. reached a plea agreement that allowed raves to continue at the site but stopped the company from selling pacifiers, Glow Sticks, and other items that the agreement labeled “drug paraphernalia.”
In Chicago and in Florida’s Orange County, near Orlando, overdose deaths attributed to “club drugs” have led to a variety of local ordinances restricting rave clubs over the past year. And in New York City, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s administration shut down the popular nightclub Twilo on fire-code and permit violations, after two overdose deaths led to more than two years of close police surveillance.
In the District, no overdose deaths have been publicly linked to rave clubs, and a study tracking the number of drug-related emergency room visits reflects favorably on the city.
Statistics from 1999the most recent available from the Drug Abuse Warning Networkshow the number of emergency department mentions of Ecstasy per 100,000 residents. D.C. ranked the lowest of 21 U.S. cities, at .5 mentions per 100,000 population, compared with rates of 4.2 per 100,000 in New Orleans and 3.1 per 100,000 in Miami.
The DEA’s DiCesar also says that the Washington rave scene is much smaller than other cities’, with only a handful of clubs hosting electronic music events regularly.
In June, however, the Web site dcraves.com listed an electronic music party every night of the week but Monday in the D.C.-Baltimore area.
Raves have reached mainstream status in the United States, but the recent crackdown by some law enforcement agencies has resulted in promoters avoiding the word “rave” and its negative connotations. Such precautions, however, still may not stop law enforcement from crashing the party.
McDonald, who goes by the name MC Stylz when he performs, wanted to ensure that authorities would not consider his April 2001 East Coast Electronic Music Festival a rave. He scheduled the festival at Maryland’s Anne Arundel County Fairgrounds during daytime hours, and he steered clear of using the word “rave” on a promotional poster. After he acquired all the necessary permits, McDonald even asked Anne Arundel police to help with event security.
What McDonald got was more than security. Anne Arundel police public information officer Charles Ravenell says his force was not fooled by an event called an “electronic music festival” rather than a “rave.” Anticipating a high volume of drug activity, Anne Arundel and Maryland state police showed up alongside thousands of festivalgoers that day. They brandished nightsticks and surveyed the event from helicopters.
The 11-hour concert, featuring more than a dozen DJs, went off as planned, but police arrested 47 people, mostly on drug charges. They seized $16,250 worth of “party drugs.”
Less than two weeks after McDonald’s event, a show called Odyssey was held at the D.C. Armory. It went virtually unnoticed by authorities, with the exception of the MPD officers who formed part of the security staff. The Georgetown-based Buzzlife Productionswhich organizes Friday night’s Buzz party at the Southeast club Nationteamed with Baltimore’s Ultraworld Productions to create Odyssey and draw 4,000 people. Ultraworld started holding parties at the Armory in the mid-’90s, and the events now happen twice a year.
Bobby Goldwater, the new president and executive director of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, oversees all events held at the Armory. He says this music event is an important part of the venue’s future. Goldwater checked out Odyssey for himself and then called Ultraworld’s founder, Lonnie Fisher, to talk about staging such parties on a more regular basis.
Kline, on the other hand, opposes having these events take place on city property. He asserts that at least half of the crowd at rave parties uses drugs, but enforcement against Ecstasy and other “club drugs” ranks low on the MPD’s to-do list because nobody in the District is dying from them.
Kline, who also investigates abuses of over-the-counter drugs such as methadone and Oxycontin, was assigned to monitor Ecstasy because of its tablet form. The narcotics department has yet to form a task force specifically to battle Ecstasy, as it has for other drugs, he says.
Just like those involved in the rave scene, Kline says he follows the news closely, and he knows that other metropolitan areas have already cracked down. If someone were to overdose on Ecstasy at a local club, Kline says, people would wonder why the MPD had not taken a more active role in enforcement.
Though D.C. has avoided a rave crackdown thus far, local promoters still have taken steps to insulate themselves.
Both Buzzlife and Ultraworld have banned most of what authorities are considering drug paraphernalia from their events, though Ultraworld’s Fisher says he allows Glow Sticks because he finds it hard to believe that an item seen at most other kinds of concerts could be called paraphernalia. He almost laughs at the suggestion that bottled water is sold at the parties solely to combat Ecstasy’s dehydrating effects.
Nevertheless, John Tabellione, a DJ and promoter at Buzzlife, says most D.C. clubs still do not take the precautions these companies have adopted. Buzz started implementing these measures after a 1999 Fox 5 News exposé# (Paper Trail, “Raving Mad,” 5/14/99) helped shut the event down for three months. Tabellione says the story was misleading but now sees it as a blessing in disguise.
“How do you find the balance between people feeling too oppressed and making sure security is tight?” asks Tabellione. “I’m not going to say people aren’t doing drugs. It’s just like they’re doing drugs at RFK [for concerts].”
Unlike concerts, Buzz and other clubs use an 18-and-older admission policy. Tabellione says that the festival in Anne Arundel might have stirred law enforcement’s wrath because it was an all-ages event.
Another problem with an explicit link between Ecstasy and the club scene is that much of the drug traffic isn’t happening at raves. Detective Greg Pass, who works undercover with the Prince William County police’s vice narcotics unit, says he regularly makes Ecstasy buys in the Virginia suburbs, where rave parties are virtually nonexistent.
In 1999, Prince William police had 25 Ecstasy-related cases. In 2000, that number jumped to 122. Only one documented rave took place in the county during that period, and it was shut down within an hour after three Ecstasy arrests.
The increasing violence linked to the lucrative trade is Pass’ biggest concern about the drug. Ecstasy costs less than 50 cents to make in labs that are primarily based overseas, but it fetches from $25 to $35 per tablet here.
This profitability keeps the stakes high, Pass says. Last year, a Michigan police detective was murdered by an Ecstasy dealer, who then shot and killed himself. In March, a 21-year-old Manassas, Va., man was allegedly murdered for his high-grade marijuana and Ecstasy by a competing dealer.
Kline says that he’s seen Ecstasy begin to enter the repertoire of dealers in Southeast D.C., an area where several of the most popular electronic-music events happen. If such deadly turf wars infiltrate the clubs, he continues, the MPD’s plan of attack on Ecstasy and the rave scene will change in a hurry.
For now, though, a peacehowever uneasyreigns in D.C.’s rave scene.
Despite the arrests at his Maryland festival, McDonald views the event as a success. Both he and the fairgrounds’ president, Diana Wilson, say there were no fights, vandalism, or even litter.
Wilson, who says that she asked her grandchildren what a rave was weeks before the festival, notes that everyone listened to music and danced.
In nearby Baltimore, Fisher now holds an annual nightlong event in a city park with the blessing of the government. “The popularity of the music is superseding the ability of the government to ‘just say no’ all the time,” says Fisher. CP