Busting Moves

A new Senate bill could drop the hammer on Cleveland's dance scene.

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Plenty of music fans could use a stern reprimand -- Eddie Money lovers, for one, and those half-wits on cell phones at every show. But for all the boneheaded concertgoers in need of reprobation, the law always seems to come down on the wrong people.

And the RAVE Act isn't likely to help matters.

The bill, now moving through the Senate, loosely interprets a law called the "crack-house statute," which came about in the mid-'80s as a means to prosecute property owners who allow their holdings to become overrun with drugs. If the bill passes, the hammer may soon fall on club owners and promoters who host raves, as well.

The crack-house statute came into use against ravers last year in New Orleans, where the owners of the State Palace Theater and a promoter were arrested for throwing a rave. Under the auspices of the statute, authorities argued that raves are synonymous with drug use, so anyone throwing a rave is knowingly allowing his property to be used for drug consumption and/or distribution, and should be punished accordingly. Authorities went so far as to classify glowsticks, pacifiers, and even bottled water as drug paraphernalia.

The New Orleans case ended in a plea bargain, but a dangerous precedent was set for the rave community nationwide.

The RAVE Act, sponsored by Delaware Democrat Joseph Biden (author of the crack-house statute), seeks to tailor the original statute to include raves and dance music events in general. It would allow prosecutors to charge property owners in civil court without having to meet the higher standard of proof in criminal cases, and penalties for conviction could lead to fines of up to $250,000.

Not surprisingly, area insiders fear that passage of the bill could be the death blow to an already thinning rave community.

"It will effectively cripple most of the underground dance scene," says Dave Segal, who is managing editor of Alternative Press magazine and DJ Veins to area clubgoers. "Club owners and promoters will surely view the risks of throwing events as being too great to outweigh the rewards, and consequently, the scene will wither."

"It's ridiculous for the Senate to demonize this community; I don't think anybody's more concerned about the safety of the average raver than the average rave promoter," says Susan Mainzer, a publicist and spokesperson for the Electronic Music Defense and Education Fund, a national organization that defends the rights of electronica aficionados. "You certainly don't want your customers to overdose and die. They won't be your customers anymore. It's ridiculous."

Even more ridiculous is the apparent inability of lawmakers to define what a rave is. The RAVE (Reducing Americans' Vulnerability to Ecstasy) Act seems to be posited on the decrepit stereotype that raves are drug dens for tweaking teens. The result is a broadly written bill that could be applied to almost any electronic music event. When Soundbites phoned the office of Ohio Senator George Voinovich -- who is likely to vote on the bill when the next congressional session begins -- his press secretary laughed. "I'd love to explain to him what a rave is," she said.

Brian Conti, head of the local rave promoter Sphere Productions, often hires off-duty Cleveland cops for his events. "We're aware that there could be drug use going on, just like a principal is aware that there could be drug use going on in his high school, and we do everything we can to prevent it," Conti says. "It's the same thing as if you arrest the principal because there's a kid using drugs in his school. There's only so much you can do."

The RAVE Act's potential to overregulate is a common concern, and it's not without precedent.

"Look at the clubs in New York," says Doug Burkhart, a Cleveland DJ who also owns Grand Poo-Bas Record Shoppe, which specializes in electronic music. "The city mandated that any club calling an ambulance more than three times would get shut down. So club owners put ODing patrons in a back room and let them fend for themselves or find their own way to the hospital."

Proponents of the RAVE Act may be well intentioned in their antidrug campaign, but their cries for reform don't resonate with members of the imperiled dance scene.

"What is this, Footloose 2002?" Burkhart asks. "Do we need to quote Bible verses that defend our right to dance?"

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