HEAR MUSIC, GET BUSTEDTHE DRUG TASK FORCE HAS PUT ROCK PROMOTERS IN AN AWKWARD POSITION
The Maricopa County Demand Reduction Program Task Force--that multiagency gang of law enforcers which has been busting pot smokers at rock concerts for the past year and a half--is known by many names. Informally, it is called the "Do Drugs, Do Time Task Force." In even more informal circles, that appellation is reduced to the "Do-Do Gang." The Do-Do Gang's most recent action came in the parking lot at Desert Sky Pavilion before a September 8 concert by Van Halen. The sweep was headlined spectacularly in the next morning's Arizona Republic, mostly because the task force specializes in generating headlines--a reporter and photographer from the newspaper were invited by the police to document the arrests. Twenty concertgoers were busted that evening, most of them for possession of pot. Instead of enjoying Van Halen's nostalgic rock bombast, these few citizens were hauled to jail downtown. It was the sixth official Do-Do action against rock 'n' rollers since the task force's first concert sweep at the giant Paul McCartney show at Tempe's Sun Devil Stadium in April 1990. Since that time, almost 90 pot arrests have been made at various venues. More rock-concert arrests likely will occur in the coming weeks and months. Chandler's Compton Terrace, which so far has been exempt from task-force actions due to a jurisdictional technicality, is the next probable candidate for preconcert maneuvers by Do-Do forces. The authorities have perfected a method by which they can make many splashy drug arrests in one concentrated area during a brief period of time. Large crowds at rock concerts are perfect places to find not-so-bright reefer smokers. And rock-concert busts get large headlines. Between the police and the fans are rock-concert promoters. This has been the worst concert season in recent memory for attendance, and though promoters are quick to say that task-force-style harassment hasn't contributed to that slump, it certainly hasn't helped.
Headlines that combine the words "Desert Sky Pavilion" and "drug bust" don't create the kind of PR a new arena craves. Having your customers repeatedly identified as likely drug suspects isn't good for business, either.
Yet it's not exactly prudent, in this day and age, to be too openly critical of antidrug forces. Promoters, while supporting ultraefficient law enforcement, must express some sympathy for their somewhat pathetic patrons. "The task-force concept is well-founded," says Allen Flexer, general manager of Desert Sky Pavilion. "Drugs are illegal in our country. People shouldn't do it. It causes a lot of social ills. "But they go out looking for people. They go out looking in the wrong places. They think by definition, if there's a concert, that everybody out there is getting drunk and smoking whatever the hell it is they smoke. If you take a cross section of any general mass gathering, a small portion of those people are gonna do drugs. They could go to a Suns game and work the parking lot. They could go to a Sun Devil football game. But it doesn't make good reading.
"And the kids are pretty much defenseless. They're not a part of the establishment." This is a theory that comes up often in Do-Do discussions. "Why don't they bust a country concert or a ball game?" ask the oppressed rockers. "Why are they picking on us?" Actually, says Jim Watson, a task-force commander and lieutenant with the Phoenix Police Department, the philosophy is raw numbers. Rock shows get popped, Watson claims, merely because they draw the largest crowds. A Suns crowd or a country-music crowd probably contains a corresponding percentage of bustable hopheads, he says, but the arrest numbers would be smaller because the total attendance would be smaller, and thus not an efficient use of task-force time. Concerts are just one of the task force's many arrest opportunities, Watson says. Most efficient are undercover drug operations in neighborhoods, during which task-force officers buy lots of drugs from a dealer, then bust the dealer, then set themselves up as dealers and sell look-alike drugs to the dealer's customers, then arrest them. The cops call this technique a "reversal." Least efficient have been sweeps of Salt River tubers and recreational boaters on nearby lakes, raids which disperse the task force over too much territory to do much good. Another well-publicized approach has been to arrest people for smoking pot and snorting coke in the parking lots of bars and nightclubs. The task force's sweeps of nightclubs peaked a couple of years ago, although Watson says his people haven't gone nightclubbing in more than a year. "By September of last year we were spending a lot of time and not arresting people at nightclubs," he says. "The word was out that you don't hang around the bar parking lots smoking pot and doing cocaine." In the case of clubs, people got the message. The message, however, has been slow to arrive inside the brains of concertgoers.
One reason is that recent arrests for smoking pot at concerts buck the trend concerning appropriate behavior at such events. In fact, promoters and security officials say that it long has been policy not to arrest (or otherwise officially hassle) pot smokers inside local concert facilities, where private security forces are hired to keep order. This policy has not changed, the promoters say.
John McCrae, program director of album-rock radio station KDKB, follows concert-bust headlines because his station co-promotes lots of shows. His call letters are plastered on concert ads, his air time is traded out for "official station" designation for some acts. "People assume, because it's been going on for so long, that someone, somewhere, said, `It's okay now [to smoke pot at concerts].' The fact is, it's not okay."
Says Danny Zelisko, a Chicago native whose Evening Star Productions has been promoting Arizona concerts since the mid-Seventies: "I come from an era when kids of my age--I'm in my mid-30s--in the late Sixties and early Seventies would go through a massive preconcert ritual. That's not to say everybody did it. It's not to say that everybody does it now. . . . It was such a big deal for kids to get ripped and go to a show. The experience was enhanced by whatever people used to do.
"But we live in a country where this is illegal, as it is in most countries. The fact is, you've got law enforcement authorities who happen to believe in doing their respective jobs.
"The bottom line is, watch your ass." The task force specializes in generating headlines--a reporter and photographer were invited by the police to document the arrests.
Headlines that combine the words "Desert Sky Pavilion" and "drug bust" don't create the kind of PR a new arena craves.
"Why don't they bust a country concert or a ball game?" ask the oppressed rockers.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.