No Rave Review

Congress was cheered when it passed a bill last month to combat child abductions. But local concert promoters are only gradually becoming aware that the legislation, signed into law by President Bush last week, contained a sucker punch they didn't see coming.

Bush signed the Protect Act of 2003 with former abduction victim Elizabeth Smart and her family looking on. The new law will assure that Amber Alert systems -- which rapidly spread information about child kidnappings -- are established in all U.S. states (all but nine of them have the systems already). The law also stiffens penalties for child kidnapping and for child pornography, and passed the Senate 98-0 and the House 400-25.

What's getting less publicity than the law's effect on swiped kids, however, is the amendment it contains that could have dire consequences for a very different set of people -- rave and concert promoters.

The amendment -- the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act -- is the latest incarnation of a bill that Senator Joe Biden of Delaware has been pushing for more than a year and which would hold rave promoters liable if they know that their patrons are using illegal drugs. (In a previous form, Biden's bill was known as the RAVE Act, short for Reducing Americans' Vulnerability to Ecstasy.)

The Valley rave scene was already on life support. Now, the prospect of getting busted for putting on a show where it's likely that drugs are used may wipe out what rave activity was left.

"This could potentially put a lot of people out of business and seize an already slowly deteriorating community," says Patrick J. Delaney III, local proprietor for Planet Muzik Entertainment, a DJ management firm, record label, and rave promotion house. "I don't want to go to prison or be held responsible for what other people do." In a telling sign of the times, Delaney's Web site lists nothing under its upcoming events section, raves or otherwise.

But rave impresarios aren't the only ones who could find themselves affected by the law. The wording of the Anti-Proliferation Act comes with language that should alarm traditional concert promoters, venue owners and building managers as well.

Specifically, the amendment expands what is known as the "crack house statute," a holdover from the '80s that holds property owners responsible for "knowingly or intentionally" allowing drug use, distribution or manufacture on their properties, whether they profit from it or not. The law now includes those people who "manage or control any place, whether permanently or temporarily, either as an owner, leasee, agent, employee, occupant, or mortgagee." Besides criminal penalties of up to 20 years, the law also carries a hefty civil fine ($250,000 or twice the gross receipts of the event), which requires a lesser burden of proof.

"It sucks," says Phoenix criminal defense attorney Nicholas Hentoff, known for defending unpopular clients such as swingers' clubs and strip joints. "This law is an improper attempt to federalize what should be a purely local law enforcement concern. It infringes on the rights of individual property owners and is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad."

The law's opponents thought they had it licked. Co-sponsor Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) withdrew his support of the RAVE Act last year after a barrage of letters and faxes from concerned businesspersons and others warned of the bill's broad nature. Leahy also argued against the new, slightly different version, when Biden attempted to attach it to the Protect Act. "The provision allowing civil suits dramatically increases the potential liability of business owners," Leahy argued. "Of course, this is a good thing when applied against those who are knowingly profiting from illegal drug use. But we have been told that even conscientious promoters may think twice before holding large concerts or other events where some drug use may be inevitable despite their best efforts." Despite those objections, however, Leahy voted for the Protect Act and its provisions against child exploitation.

In the Valley, law enforcement authorities may have a difficult time applying the law to raves, which have become almost nonexistent. "Raves are almost dead," says Jas Tynan, formerly a successful rave promoter and now a club promoter and DJ. "Almost everything's moved into the club scene." He doesn't attribute this, however, to law enforcement's frequent targeting of raves. "People grow up a little bit," Tynan says. "And dirty warehouses and parking in shady areas of town is cool a few times, but after a while you look for something a little more safe and clean, that maybe has some beer, with nice bathrooms and safe parking."

Swell Records owner Russel Ramirez, who's thrown a multitude of large raves in Phoenix over the last decade, has moved the majority of his events to club venues rather than warehouses. "I'm not all that concerned about [the law]," he says. Ramirez says that no matter how strict the security at events, drugs will find their way in. He's confident that his efforts to keep drug use from his events comply fully with the new law.

But the lack of raves doesn't mean the law won't have a far-reaching effect. The new act is written so broadly, it could put more traditional venues in jeopardy.

New Times asked Tony Coulson, the Drug Enforcement Agency's local assistant special agent in charge, whether "knowingly" allowing drug use at a concert could be invoked in the case of, say, when Cypress Hill's Smoke Out or Snoop Dogg's Up in Smoke tours roll through town. Could the promoters for those shows be held liable for knowingly allowing drug use, with the events' names as evidence? And would the DEA pursue such a case?

"Yes," Agent Coulson replied. "We will pursue it. We will be very active and very aggressive in the pursuit of those things. We need to send a message."

Danny Zelisko, who's been promoting shows through his Evening Star Productions for nearly 30 years and is now president of conglomerate king Clear Channel Entertainment's Phoenix office, says there's not much more he can do to prevent drug use at shows. "Obviously, we don't put on any events for anything illegal to go on," Zelisko says. "Our intent is to put together a nice party and have people come and have a good time. I don't know that you change anything that we're doing.

"Are we putting on these shows and promoting the fact that something might go on at the show? Absolutely not," he continues. "Are we knowingly involved? Absolutely not. Do we condone it? Absolutely not. But can we put a security person on each and every person that comes into a venue? Absolutely not."

Until the first promoter is busted for blunts lit up by concertgoers, however, promoters like Zelisko can't know how at risk they are. "I guess we'll have to wait and see," Zelisko says. "Obviously, I would never want to find myself in any hot water for . . . what people did [at a show] that someone might consider wrong."

Coulson maintains that the act's intent is purely concerned with protecting kids from club drugs, and that it merely provides the DEA and other law enforcement agencies additional support toward that end. (Other sections of the Anti-Proliferation Act call for increasing the penalties involving gamma hydroxybutyric acid [GHB] and provide funds for drug education and staffing.)

"It won't change anything for us in terms of our approach," Coulson says. "We take a pretty aggressive approach to what's been termed club drugs,' but we call them predatory drugs.' [The act] just gives us a little bit more oomph to the law in terms of ensuring that people are safe, that kids aren't going to be victimized by this stuff. These are tools for us to enforce responsibility on these people, that it's not just about making money."

Biden said on the floor of the Senate in January that the act would "help in the prosecution of rogue promoters who not only know that there is drug use at their event but also hold the event for the purpose of illegal drug use or distribution. That is quite a high bar." Opponents choose another metaphor: a wide net. Biden's law is so broad, they argue, law enforcers could apply it to just about anyone putting on an evening's entertainment.

Whether the Anti-Proliferation Act becomes a threat to the civil liberties of established promoters ultimately depends on how the law enforcement community chooses to apply it.

But one thing most agree on: What was left of the rave scene will now surely disappear.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Brendan Joel Kelley