Will RAVE Act Stomp Out Drugs -- Or Dissent?

Drug reformers plan to sue to overturn a new federal law they say was used to stifle their criticism of government policy.

Despite assurances by U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, D-Delaware, that his Reducing Americans' Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act -- better known as the RAVE Act -- would not be applied indiscriminately, it appears the anti-drug measure's first practical application since becoming federal law less than two months ago has been just that. The RAVE Act amends and expands the existing federal "crack house statutes" (also authored by Biden) by enabling the government to prosecute any person that makes available any property for any use if drugs -- even those being held by a third party -- are found on the premises during the event.

The Drug Reform Coordination Network reported June 10 that a fundraising concert for the Montana chapters of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and Students for Sensible Drug Policy was cancelled -- mere hours before it was to begin. A Billings-based Drug Enforcement Administration agent had presented the venue's managers with a copy of the RAVE Act and threatened them with hefty fines or property forfeiture if any drugs were found on the premises during the fundraiser.

According to Allen St. Pierre, NORML's executive director, the intimidation created the desired effect: scaring the club owners into canceling the fundraiser. The DEA agent "absolutely, positively spelled it out to the management of the club that they could be in violation of this brand-spanking new law," he said. "This is so unprecedented; that's why it's scary." St. Pierre charges that the agents, knowing the fundraiser was intended to support drug policy reform groups, stifled the groups' free speech rights by pre-emptively shutting down the event. "The First Amendment seems clear here; that is a violation," he said. "The government can now immediately and proactively stop people [whose views they disagree with] from gathering." Both NORML and SSDP, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, plan to file suit on First Amendment grounds over the Billings case, seeking to have the RAVE Act overturned.

Biden and RAVE Act supporters had long assured opponents that, despite the act's breadth, the law wouldn't be applied in this manner. The legislation was clearly aimed at quashing the rave scene, but drug reformers and civil libertarians quickly cried foul at the scope of the provisions applying to any use of property, no matter how "temporary." Potentially, a citizen who allows -- even unknowingly -- the use of illegal drugs in his or her home can be prosecuted and lose that home under the RAVE Act. Foes of the legislation also worried that the law could be used to target any group or individual critical of government policy -- a fear that drug reformers say has now become a reality in the Montana case.

In 2002, the drug reform lobby was part of a coalition that successfully killed the RAVE Act. This year, though, Biden reincarnated the legislation (now called the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act) and inserted it into the Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to End the Exploitation of Children Today (PROTECT) Act -- the home of feel-good laws like the measure creating a national Amber Alert system. President George W. Bush signed the PROTECT Act into law on April 30.

The Chronicle was unable to contact the DEA's Rocky Mountain region spokesman, but on June 11 Biden spokesman Chip Unruh said that the drug reformers have the story all wrong. Instead, Unruh said that a DEA agent visited the Eagle Lodge meeting hall, where the fundraiser was being held, to express concern that there had been "a lack of proper planning" on the part of organizers and that they might not have hired enough "security personnel" for the event. When pressed, Unruh said the agent did tell the lodge's manager about the newly enacted RAVE legislation because, "knowing who they [NORML and SSDP] are," he said, violation of the law was also a concern.

Unfortunately, Unruh's explanation gives credence to NORML director St. Pierre's allegation that the government's actions were discriminatory and violated the organizers' constitutional rights. Unruh's "exactly right: they know what NORML is and what it's about," St. Pierre said. "Would they have done this to a Jewish community group? Or to a group that plays baroque music? What's to stop them from acting out an anti-gay agenda by shutting down gay dance clubs?" he asked. "Anybody who claims to be a liberal Democrat" -- like Biden himself -- "should ram their heads into a hole if they voted for this."

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