The Agony of the Ecstasy

The Ecstasy Prevention Act of 2001 and its Hazardous effects on Austin's Rave Scene

Ark Entertainment's Airport 2 Rave, 2000
Ark Entertainment's Airport 2 Rave, 2000 (Photo By Bruce Dye)

Now is not a good time to harbor a pacifier fetish if you're over, say, 10 years old. The wisdom of such an accouterment for anyone old enough to sport a tongue stud is of course dubious, but lately, the latex toddler-plug has come under the classification of narcotics paraphernalia. Ditto for those colorful glow-sticks endemic to most mass gatherings with a median age under 35, as well as painter's masks, which could be used to keep fumes in rather than the more traditional usage. In other words, when it comes to raves, the party may well be over.

The American rave movement, those all-night bacchanals comprised of equal parts DJ-driven electronic music, hordes of mad-for-it kids clutching glow-sticks and gnawing on pacifiers, and a heady mix of fog machines, Intellibeams, and the empathogenic club drug ecstasy, is suddenly facing the kind of coordinated law-enforcement attention that the UK experienced way back in the summer of 1994.

There, legal skirmishes over the increasingly prevalent amounts of ecstasy flooding the country's nightclubs eventually resulted in the widely despised Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, a draconian brace of laws that dramatically increased the constabulary and New Scotland Yard's powers, including the removal of the right to silence and much wider search and seizure powers. Most astonishingly, the act targeted raves with precision specificity, defining a rave as anywhere with over 100 people playing or listening to "music characterized by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats," and allowing the police to break up gatherings with as few as 10 individuals.

Due in large part to the recent passage of the Ecstasy Prevention Act of 2001 [see sidebar], many people, not the least of whom are the ravers themselves, worry that the stage is being set for a similar authoritarian melee to occur in the states, with the immense and the far-flung raver subculture targeted for extinction.

Law enforcement in Austin says that's not the case, claiming instead that their recently redoubled efforts to combat the spread of ecstasy, undertaken in conjunction with Federal DEA advisement, are merely a long-overdue attempt to head off a burgeoning drug crisis that threatens to overshadow the mid-Eighties horror show of crack cocaine.

Raves and ravers are only being focused on, say the authorities, because that's where the X is. And they're partly right. But by all accounts, the drug has already spread to everywhere else: rock concerts, Sixth Street, any and all places where people are bound and determined to get high and have fun, and damn the legalities.

Now is not a good time to be a raver. Not even in the Live Music Capital of the World.

Box Full of Letters

Three weeks ago, a broad assortment of Austin club owners, promoters, and DJs -- including Direct Events, owners of the Austin Music Hall, La Zona Rosa, and the Backyard; the nightclubs Texture and Element; and local party promoter/DJ Coy West of 626 Soul -- checked their mailboxes and discovered something almost as frightening as what everyone else is currently worried about.
DEA Agent Nicholas Nargi
DEA Agent Nicholas Nargi (Photo By Bruce Dye)

What they found was a letter from the Austin Police Department announcing that local clubs and promoters that hold rave or rave-like parties where ecstasy is likely to be sold or used would be targeted by APD officers working in conjunction with the DEA and the TABC.

"We have gotten intelligence that points to a RAVE being nothing more than a haven for drug dealers and drug use," the note, from Robert Dahlstrom, commander of the APD's Organized Crime Unit, reads in part. "If the owner of the business or the promoter of the event continues to allow this type of behavior, appropriate charges will be filed on those responsible."

The news was not entirely unexpected.

Earlier this year, New Orleans-based rave promoter "Disco" Donnie Estopinal, had federal charges filed against him under an obscure 1986 provision known as the Federal Crack House Law (United States Code Title 21, Section 856), which allows for federal seizure of buildings where habitual drug use or selling takes place. Operation Rave Review, spearheaded by NOPD and the DEA, alleged that Estopinal knew that the drug ecstasy was being sold at rave parties he threw at New Orleans' famed State Palace Theatre.

The prosecution threatened the promoter with a lengthy prison sentence and the State Palace's owner with permanent loss of lease under the law, which provides a much tougher federal version of most jurisdictions' local nuisance abatement laws. Estopinal eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, accepted a fine, and cut his ties to the rave community, although he has recently returned to promoting shows in Orleans Parish.

That case was followed by this summer's Ecstasy Prevention Act (Senate Bill 1208/HR 2582), sponsored by Senators Robert Graham, Hillary Clinton, and Joseph Lieberman, among others. In short, the act provides grants to local law enforcement agencies, with "priority to communities that have taken measures to combat club drug use, including passing ordinances restricting rave clubs, increasing law enforcement on Ecstasy, and seizing lands under nuisance abatement laws to make new restrictions on an establishment's use."

No one, not even the ravers, is disputing that the use of ecstasy in Central Texas and elsewhere is skyrocketing. In the past few years, the American rave and electronica scene has grown exponentially, and continues to attract more and more young people to what is arguably the biggest global musical movement since the Ramones decided to forego haircuts.

In this case, however, drug use -- specifically ecstasy -- has seen a corresponding increase (see It's a familiar pattern, one seen before with punk rockers and speed, disco fans and cocaine, hippies and LSD, Beats and pot, jazzbos and heroin.

Robert Dahlstrom, commander of APD's Organized Crime Unit
Robert Dahlstrom, commander of APD's Organized Crime Unit (Photo By Bruce Dye)

Of immediate concern to civil libertarians are the methods being employed in the name of stamping out ecstasy and related "club drugs." Aimed at the drug's and dealer's ranks, measures such as the Ecstasy Prevention Act are also threatening to stamp out promoters, clubs, and an entire musical substratum.

Questions? Just ask Noah Balch.

The Sinking of Noah's Ark

Balch, a 26-year-old UT Business School grad, was until recently the driving force behind Ark Entertainment Inc., one of the largest independent companies promoting raves in the South. Assuming the nom de guerre Noah Ark, he's the man behind Austin's Airport Festivals and the Electric Daisy Carnival, two examples in a long string of often lauded and equally often derided behemoth raves, or "massives," that have helped put Austin on the electronica map.

Things turned sour for Balch on Sept. 7, just days before the terrorist attacks soured everything else. Literally hours before his "Geisha-a-Go-Go" party, featuring Los Angeles superstar DJ Bad Boy Bill, was to happen at San Antonio's mammoth indoor/outdoor music venue Sunset Station, the club was visited by members of the SAPD Vice Squad and the TABC, who Balch says told him in no uncertain terms that the event would have to be canceled.

According to Balch, the SAPD threatened General Manager Tom Ozene with everything from pulling Sunset Station's liquor license to having the SAFD yank the building's occupancy permit.

"They told us, 'We don't like raves in San Antonio, and that's all there is to it,'" says Balch, who also recalls SAPD officers specifically mentioning possible use of the federal Crack House Law if the show wasn't canceled immediately.

"I ended up losing $30,000 that night," he adds. "We still had to pay for Bad Boy Bill, the fliers, lighting crews -- all the stuff that suddenly wasn't going to be happening."

Representatives of Sunset Station have declined to comment on the incident, but a call to Officer Al Ballew of the SAPD's Public Information Office netted the following response: "We sent detectives over to Sunset Station with some of our Vice Unit," says Officer Ballew, "and advised the management as to what possibly can occur at these sorts of parties, and that that activity is illegal -- narcotics activity and anything like that. At no point did we tell them they could not have the party, we just informed them of the consequences of any illegal activity and they decided on their own not to have it."

Regardless of who said what to whom, for Balch, worse was to follow. Ark Entertainment's mammoth Airport 2 rave, scheduled for Oct. 6, was also disallowed from happening at Sunset Station, leaving Balch in the lurch to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars. Originally expected to draw some 15,000 ravers from all over the world, the Airport festival was quickly relocated to Steiner Ranch outside Austin after much legal wrangling, including a run-in with the Travis County DA and Sheriff's Dept., who both Balch and McKinney claim tried to stymie the event, albeit unsuccessfully.

Noah Balch of Ark Entertainment
Noah Balch of Ark Entertainment (Photo By Bruce Dye)

The upshot of both sides' maneuvering was that Ark Entertainment was allowed to go on with the show, provided they had bus transport available to and from the remote venue, which according to Balch and many of the attendees, became a logistical nightmare when the contracted company ran into problems midway through the evening.

"All I was trying to do was run a legal, legitimate business," says Balch, "and I was doing a good job of it for the past three or four years. Now they've completely shut us down."

Balch's attorney Buck McKinney agrees, saying, "If you can read that Crack House Statute and see how it ought to apply to a rave, I'd like you to explain it to me. It's just the most tortured reading that you could possibly imagine. The primary purpose of a rave is to put on a concert, not to provide a place for people to come do drugs, and frankly I don't see how you can even get there from here."

Shay Jones, who manages the Austin Music Hall under the Direct Events banner and who also received one of the APD's letters, agrees and cites Balch's raves at the Music Hall as some of the most responsibly run parties he's seen.

"Even before we got the [APD] letter, we heard through a TABC contact that trouble was brewing," says Jones. "It wasn't right for us to continue holding these sorts of events at the Music Hall, especially with so much stuff up in the air at the moment. There's obviously a crackdown -- they're going after people. We didn't know who the target was, and so we just decided to withdraw."

'Do It Legal'

"We're not looking at any ordinances to ban raves," asserts the APD's Dahlstrom. "I don't care how many raves you have, I really don't. You can have a rave anywhere they'll let you, just as long as you do it legal."

The problem, Dahlstrom points out, is the increasing numbers of complaints the APD has received from the community about the pervasive drug use and dealing found at most raves. Both the promoters and the club/venue owners agree that yes, ecstasy has become a problem at Austin raves, with kids as young as 14 queuing up No one interviewed for this article denied that raves attract a serious drug element to buy "disco biscuits" from virtually open-air dealers hanging around the dance floor.

The problem, say club owners, has been repeatedly addressed by them to varying degrees of effect. But there's only so much they can do short of strip-searching their patrons.

Shay Jones: "We see that stuff and we know that ecstasy is coming in the building, but we can't always stop it. We try and respond to the telltale signs -- the dealers, the people that are so messed up they're on the floor -- but that's a fine line as well. Just because someone is sitting down in the corner or leaning up against a wall doesn't mean they're doped up. It's not illegal to lean against a wall, and I'm sure if you've been dancing for a long time you're going to do that regardless of whether you're high or not. It's tough for us to make that call."

The Agony of the Ecstasy

As to one of the more worrisome provisions in the recent Ecstasy Prevention Act -- the passage relating to grants for local law enforcement agencies who "take measures ... including passing ordinances restricting rave clubs" -- Commander Dahlstrom hasn't heard of it.

"The APD isn't receiving any grants for this," he says. "And it's not just raves we're going after, either. The bottom line is that we've seen big increases lately in ecstasy numbers. Give me an afternoon, and I'll go get you 1,000 pills. It's very prevalent, and not just on Sixth Street."

Dahlstrom is well aware of Austin's reputation as the Live Music Capital of the World, and although he's no fan of rave music, he stated repeatedly, "This isn't about the raves, it's about harm reduction. If you have blatant drug abuse going on inside your rave, we're going to come in and we're going to make arrests.

"On top of that, we're going to look at civil law, which is nuisance abatement. But let me repeat this: There's nothing that says a rave is illegal, and we don't think they're illegal. What is illegal is if you have raves and we come in and make 10 arrests two times in a row, then it's not going to be hard for us to go to a civil court and say we have habitual drug use at this club."

Critics, of course, say clubs, and to varying degrees, the music scene itself, are always going to be marred by drug use. After all, how likely are you to attend the annual Bob Marley Fest at Auditorium Shores without seeing at least a few reggae fans spark up a spliff? Or, for that matter, how likely is it to go into any club on Sixth Street, any night of the year, without catching at least a handful of patrons eager to augment their Crown 'n' Coke high with a little cocaine, a little GHB, a little whatever?

Again, it all comes back to what the APD sees as "blatant and indiscriminate drug use" at Austin raves. That's the reason the APD is no longer allowing any of its people to work off-duty security details at such events, a move that worries promoters and club owners who feel pulling out all the cops is going to attract more ecstasy dealers once they discover they won't be encountering any of Austin's finest on the dance floor.

Asked about the targeting of specific raver fashion accessories -- the glow-sticks, pacifiers, and painter's masks frequently used to hold in the cool mentholated fumes of Vick's Vap-O-Rub -- Commander Dahlstrom argues that such accessories, often sold at raves at inflated prices, fall under the purview of drug paraphernalia and should be treated as such, up to and including possible prosecution of the on-site vendors that hawk their wares from the sidelines.

"The promoter, or somebody, is making a lot of money off the effects of that drug by selling those things," says Dahlstrom, "and yes, we're going to go after them, too."

First Steps?

So where does all this sudden scrutiny leave Austin's rave community? Between a rock and a crack house law, apparently. Almost immediately after receiving Commander Dahlstrom's letter, local DJ and promoter Coy West of 626 Soul decided a proactive approach was the only way to deal with the situation before things got even more out of hand.
Coalitioning (l-r): Coy West, APD Lt. Jerry Fearn, AFD Capt. Don Smith, Nargi, Dahlstrom, APD Detective Steve Oswalt
Coalitioning (l-r): Coy West, APD Lt. Jerry Fearn, AFD Capt. Don Smith, Nargi, Dahlstrom, APD Detective Steve Oswalt (Photo By Bruce Dye)

West is a respected member of the Austin rave community, maybe more so than anyone else. He's been throwing parties and spinning at them for the past six years, and his knowledge of the pros and cons of the scene is exhaustive.

"Personally," says West, "I think that had promoters acted a little more responsibly earlier on -- and when I say promoters, I mean the ones behind large raves and massives -- and perhaps curbed the amount of kids that come to these things, we might not be in this situation. A large portion of those 14 to 17-year-old kids are just following the trend at this point, and the promoters have capitalized on that by making their parties all ages, which when you get right down to it, is just asking for trouble.

"What we need now," he continues, "is to work with the APD and try and get some sort of agreement or resolution from them to the effect that if a promoter or club owner follows certain pre-established guidelines in throwing his event, then he won't have to fear being shut down or harassed by law enforcement at the eleventh hour, which is exactly what happened to Ark."

To that end, West has formed the Austin Nightlife Coalition, a group of some 40 prominent members of the Austin rave and nightclub community. On Monday, Oct. 29, the Coalition met face to face with members of the APD, AFD, and DEA at Element nightclub, in what was later considered by both sides of the issue to be a remarkable first step toward resolving the current situation.

Both Commander Dahlstrom and Austin-based DEA Agent Nicholas Nargi spoke to law enforcement's concerns about the ecstasy situation in the Austin rave community, and in turn listened to members of the coalition. No hugs were exchanged, but hey, it's still early.

"I've been doing this for 16 years," Agent Nargi told the Coalition, "and the only thing I can associate this to is the crack thing back in the mid-Eighties, when we watched middle-class and upper-middle-class kids doing things that nobody in this room would ever have thought they would have done. Because they got hooked on crack, they ended up doing things and going places, going to neighborhoods I wouldn't go into. We can debate ecstasy for as long as we want, but it's illegal, it does bad things to people; studies are coming out that it can have long-term effects on your memory, and it's no good. Kids think it's safe, and it's not."

That's law enforcement's argument in a nutshell, and even the staunchest advocate of the rave community has been hard-pressed to disagree with the obvious correlation between raves and ecstasy, and the current wave of difficulties arising therefrom.

"For the most part," said Nargi, "[Austin] raves are very calm and they're nonviolent, but what we're seeing on the East Coast is gangs starting to come into raves, robbing the dealers, and then selling the drugs at the same raves. You don't need those kinds of problems.

"It's all about these kinds of meetings and people being responsible for what's going on. That paraphernalia we've mentioned -- somebody's making money on that. Does a 16-year-old need a pacifier? Maybe his mom and dad think it's cool, but for the most part, it's so you don't grind your teeth down."

Although no final resolution was reached during last week's 90-minute face-off, both law enforcement and the members of the Coalition agreed to attempt to hammer out some sort of specific guidelines to help promoters and club owners stay in the clear. It's not the end, obviously, but it's a notable start.

"What I'd like to see come out of this," says Coy West, "is just an open line of communication between city officials and the local club and rave community. I'm really hoping that here in Austin we can set some sort of precedent, whereby the rave community can communicate with law enforcement, free from judgment and free from any sort of harsh feelings for each other. We've got a once in a lifetime opportunity to make a difference and benefit both sides of the equation, and I think we've definitely made some steps in the right direction."

"We're not targeting the music," stresses Agent Nargi. "I'm not here to close you down and put you out of business. I'm here because I see a legitimate concern. There's a nationwide effort against ecstasy and all these other club drugs that fall into that category. Talking to [the Coalition], working with them, and trying to do something better about it is, I think, the first step."

For some, however, that first step has arrived too late.

"They're not here to put us out of business?" asks Noah Balch. "They already did." end story

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle