You may have recently seen the grainy C-SPAN clip floating around that features Democratic hopeful Joe Biden arguing on behalf of the RAVE, or “Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstacy”, Act. The video is from a 2001 hearing hosted by the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control and features Biden making some intense claims against the Electronic Dance Music community. The video left many new-age ravers confused, questioning the purpose of the bill and how it affects us today.
Biden was the author and champion of the piece of legislation that came to be known as the RAVE Act in 2002. He became the speaking power behind the act and lobbied to local and legislative bodies. He wanted them to be aware of the rise of ecstasy usage in rave settings, and to address the problem in whatever way they saw fit.
“I think this is a local problem,” he said about raves. “If I were governor of my state or the mayor of my town, I would be passing new ordinances relating to stiff criminal penalties for anyone who holds a rave, the promoter, the guy who owns the building, I would put the son of a gun in jail, I would change the law.”
Biden spoke candidly about the need for immediate, nation-wide reform during the 2001 hearing. He actively targeted promoters and venue owners over the problem. He additionally said, “There’s no doubt about where these raves take place, in the middle of the desert. Arrest the promoter, and find a rationale unrelated to drugs.”
At the time, Biden believed that if the local governments didn’t step in to stop raves, then ecstasy would become the latest drug fad to take hold of the country. Biden said in the hearing, “I know of no other drug I’ve been exposed to studying that has such a profile in the circumstances under which it’s consumed as this drug.” He later added, “So I think we better send out a message to the local officials that if you are able to eliminate the circumstances and the places under which raves took place and/or policed those which on their face are legitimate, you would cut into this in an incredible way.”
In the 36 years Biden was in the Senate, he spent a big chunk of that time cracking down on drugs and drug usage. He additionally said in the C-SPAN clip, “I’m the guy who authored the crack-house legislation. We can use the crack-house legislation to tear down these buildings” where raves are hosted. The “crack-house legislation” Biden referred to was a section of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. Additionally, he co-sponsored the Emergency Crack Control Act, which gave the federal government more authority in shutting down crack houses. It also allowed them to punish their owners and managers.
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act developed a sentencing disparity between cocaine and crack cocaine. Someone would need to possess 100 times the amount of powdered cocaine to meet the mandatory minimum sentence of someone charged with any crack-cocaine possession. The act was criticized widely due to unfairly targetting African American communities, who were statistically more likely to be in possession of crack-cocaine due to its lower cost. Furthermore, this law created a major impediment for cities that wanted to limit overdose deaths by creating safe houses for those struggling with addiction.
The RAVE Act didn’t initially pass in Congress but was brought back up again in a later piece of legislation. In 2003, the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act was approved. While the name changed, the overall point of the bill remained the same as when it was proposed in 2001. Club owners and party promoters could be held criminally liable if any drugs were sold or ingested in an event space they controlled. This included penalties of fines up to $250,000 and 20 years in jail.
The 2003 act was left wildly open so that it could target venue owners, promoters, and label managers. Volunteers passing out flyers before or after the show could even be held liable for the actions at the events they promoted. This caused venues and promoters to take drastic measures. The paranoia of being arrested caused many raves to ban educational programming and drug testing for drug users, and all medical services. As you can imagine, this left uneducated kids vulnerable to overdose.
These laws are still in effect today and dictate how many venues run their events. The main issue with the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act is that it is too vague. For example, there is no check-list or set of specific guidelines that law enforcers can use to identify which nightclub or venue might be fostering illegal drug use. Therefore federal authorities can resort to choosing anything they determine as encouraging drug culture. Items allowed in venues such as glow sticks, kandi, lollipops, flow props, and even bottled water can be a sign that the event is supporting the use of illegal drugs.
Venue and nightclub owners continue to be wary of how their events are run and what they allow on their premises. Drug education and drug safety services are not provided at events where they are badly needed, because government officials believe it’s an invitation for patrons to use drugs, rather than a harm reduction tactic. Even handing out leaflets with information on safe drug usage can be negatively viewed by officials.
While Biden has pulled back on some of his stances from the 2000s, the RAVE Act still affects our culture today and limits many ravers’ access to drug education and drug testing. Important programs like DanceSafe are often run out of festival premises or have to work undercover to offer harm-reduction services. This all can feel a bit ridiculous, as event organizers should not be afraid to provide free water, air-conditioned rooms, or other sensible safety measures.
In the opioid crisis facing the United States, Joe’s legacy continues to prevent cities from opening safe-injection facilities that have been proven to save lives. At these facilities, opioid users can get clean needles and drugs injected by medical professionals while helping them get addiction treatment. Not a single soul has overdosed in any of these facilities across Europe and Canada, but in the U.S., they’re against federal law. As incredibly potent fentanyl has found its way into heroin, cocaine, and more recently Ecstasy or MDMA, access to drug testing should be increased, but thanks to the legacy of Mr. Biden, testing is still illegal at festivals and venues across America.
The “Amend the RAVE Act” organization continues to fight for changes in drug policy so that a “safety first” approach becomes the standard. Until then, it’s important to educate yourself and your fellow ravers on how to stay safe, in addition to voting for candidates that support reform.