Two young women on an urgent mission have been lugging boxes into the offices of U.S. senators this week. The boxes contain petitions an inch thick, one for each senator. Nearly 10,000 signatures were collected over the Internet in five days.
The petitions declare: "This bill is a serious threat to civil liberties, freedom of speech and the right to dance."
Look out, Congress: The ravers are coming.
"We're offended by the fact they're blackballing an entire musical genre," said Amanda Huie, checking senators' names off her list Tuesday afternoon.
The genre in question is electronic dance music, which fans enjoy at all-night parties called raves. Legislation in Congress could hold promoters responsible if people attending the events use illegal drugs such as Ecstasy, the party drug frequently associated with raves.
The Reducing Americans' Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act of 2002 -- or the RAVE Act -- has cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee and is on the consent calendar, meaning it could receive final approval without a roll call vote at any time. When he introduced the bill in June, Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) said "most raves are havens for illicit drugs," and congressional findings submitted with the bill label as drug paraphernalia such rave mainstays as bottled water, "chill rooms" and glow sticks.
The bill would expand the existing federal crack house law, which makes it a felony to provide a space for the purpose of illegal drug use, to cover promoters of raves and other events.
Another bill pending in the House -- the Clean, Learn, Educate, Abolish, Neutralize and Undermine Production (CLEAN-UP) of Methamphetamines Act, introduced by Rep. Doug Ose (R-Calif.) -- goes further. It would hold concert promoters in violation if they "reasonably ought to know" that someone will use an illegal drug during an event.
The House bill has 67 sponsors but has languished in committee since February, while in one month the RAVE Act -- sponsored by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) -- has sailed smoothly to the brink of approval.
Caught by surprise, some ravers briefly considered a more theatrical protest on the Hill, perhaps showing off totems of their culture -- rainbow hair, baggy pants, extended trance jams and those controversial glow sticks. But no. This is Washington, and ravers know the folkways. Huie, dressed quietly in slacks and shirt, said people from 49 states signed the petition. (Ravers must be scarce in North Dakota.)
"This is a petition about S. 2633," Huie told receptionists in office after office, referring to the bill number with insider aplomb. She is the marketing director of Buzzlife Productions, a Washington promoter.
Biden's staff has been surprised, too -- by the sudden outcry. "We thought this would be an innocuous bill that everybody would rally in support of," said Alan Hoffman, Biden's chief of staff.
After all, the bill merely adjusts the wording of the so-called crack house law. For example, crack houses are fixed indoor locations; the RAVE Act would also cover temporary outdoor venues.
"It violates the First Amendment," said Marv Johnson, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Johnson argues that while there is no constitutional right to smoke crack, there is, in fact, a right to dance. Music and dance are protected forms of free expression, he said. By extending the crack house law to dance parties, the RAVE Act would discourage promoters from sponsoring this kind of art, he said.
The ACLU was caught as flat-footed as the ravers, and is seeking a senator to put a "hold" on the bill, to get it off the consent calendar and force a roll call vote.
Biden rejects the ACLU's characterization. The issue is the drugs, he said, not the music. The bill was prompted by unsuccessful prosecutions of rave promoters under the crack house law. Introducing the bill, Biden said Ecstasy is responsible for thousands of overdoses and some deaths, and its abuse by teenagers has jumped 71 percent since 1999. He said police investigations in several cities demonstrate that raves are a favorite place to buy, sell and take Ecstasy tablets.
Some promoters distribute fliers bearing pictures of pills or argot for Ecstasy such as "E" or "X" or "Rollin' " -- evidence that doing drugs is part of the purpose of those raves, Biden said. Under his bill, only promoters who stage events for that purpose would be prosecuted.
But that may not be much of a safeguard for legitimate promoters, according to the ACLU and rave advocates. The congressional findings attached to the bill bluntly state that "the trafficking and use of 'club drugs' . . . is deeply embedded in the rave culture." The findings become part of the legislative history of the bill and could support a prosecutor's claim that any rave should be suspect, Johnson said. The RAVE Act provides for civil penalties of $250,000 or twice the gross proceeds of the rave, requiring a lower burden of proof than the crack house law's criminal penalties, Johnson said.
"The way the system really works is, you arrest and accuse and then you fight it out in court," said Lonnie Fisher, president of Ultraworld Productions in Baltimore. "They could break the back of a small promoter financially."
But Grassley, in a statement yesterday, said the RAVE Act is an appropriate extension of the crack house law: "There are people who host raves so they can sell Ecstasy, just as there are people who rent houses so they can sell drugs. We've seen raves advertised as safe, alcohol-free and drug-free places for kids to socialize and dance. If this is what the promoter actually intends, then they don't have anything to worry about."
Ravers seem most offended by what they say is another smear to the reputation of their strobe-lit scene. They contend that police, politicians and media have exaggerated the amount of criminal activity in rave culture since it began more than a decade ago. There are plenty of drugs at rock shows, too, ravers claim, yet no senator has proposed a ROCK Act.
"This bill seems to imply that people go to raves to do drugs, and the music is there to accentuate the drug experience," said Luciana Lopez of Washington, who is protesting the legislation. A copy editor for a science journal, she said she neither drinks nor uses drugs -- but does wear green and blue wigs to raves.
"This culture is really important to me," she said. She described the euphoria of dancing for hours with people who may start as strangers but who by early the next morning are exchanging hugs and phone numbers. "It makes you feel part of a community," she said.
The water and the "chill rooms" are for cooling off after dancing, she said, not because so many ravers are overheated on Ecstasy. And the glow sticks look cool.
Lopez and many Washington ravers are found Friday nights at Buzz, the weekly rave party sponsored by Buzzlife at Nation, the club on Half Street SE. The cover charge is $15 before 11 p.m., $20 after, and the dancing stops at 6 a.m., according to Huie.
Three years ago, a local television station went undercover at Buzz and broadcast alleged drug use. In the welter of bad publicity, Buzz temporarily shut down. The ravers claimed the discovery of drugs was blown out of proportion. Now ravers must empty their pockets at the door, according to Huie.
Congress has taken up the issue of rave culture at least once before. A year ago, as part of a celebration of Detroit's tricentennial, the House and Senate passed a resolution congratulating the city for, among other things, helping to pioneer techno, the electronic dance music popular at raves.