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Mother of late University student launches campaign to amend the RAVE act

Act de-incentivises, prevents music venues from providing hydration, Goldsmith says

With the dust of summer festival season beginning to settle, Dede Goldsmith was ready to act. On Aug. 31, Goldsmith launched the Amend the RAVE Act Campaign, which aims to amend legislation concerning safety measures at raves and electronic dance music (EDM) festivals.

Her daughter, Shelley Goldsmith, was a second-year Jefferson Scholar at the University who died while attending an EDM concert in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 31 of last year.

Shelley’s death has been attributed to a heat stroke which occurred after she took a powdered form of the drug MDMA. While MDMA was originally considered to be a purer form of ecstasy, recent studies have found it is often heavily laced with other drugs and chemicals. Heat stroke remains the primary cause of MDMA-related deaths over both overdose and other side effects.

Both MDMA and ecstasy play a large role in electronic music culture. As it gained popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s, segments of the underground rave scene were run, in part, by rogue promoters and venue owners who were simultaneously pushing drugs on ravers — ecstasy in particular.

Creating a safe rave

After their daughter’s death, Dede and Rob Goldsmith founded Protect Our Youth, a non-profit organization which aims to support educational and charitable programs. Dede Goldsmith described the organization as an umbrella under which they have launched multiple initiatives “to approach the non-addictive party drug use among 17-25 year olds.”

Goldsmith started the campaign to amend the RAVE act on the one year anniversary of Shelley’s death, saying it was clear to her this was where she needed to take Shelley’s message.

The goal of the campaign is to “allow organizers — venue organizers and festival organizers — concert owners [and] people in charge of putting together these mega concerts … to institute common sense safety measures,” Goldsmith said.

These measures include providing water and a place to cool down from the heat of the dance floor, as well as having more trained medical staff, ambulances and medical tents on hand.

Goldsmith said the campaign emphasizes a “safety first” approach.

“I’m absolutely in favor of drug searches and everything they can do, but kids are going to get drugs in,” Goldsmith said. “Harm reduction is a last ditch effort to save these kids. It needs to be a safety issue rather than a law enforcement [issue].”

University of Delaware Prof. Tammy Anderson, who teaches sociology and criminal justice, has been studying rave culture for several years, and also underscored the safety issue at today’s EDM festivals and concerts.

“If a festival has 120,000 people at it, then you better have more than four medical tents,” Anderson said. “It’s the health angle by which the reformers of rave culture will be successful.”

Implementation of these potentially life-saving measures has, however, been hampered in the last decade by legislation known as the RAVE Act, which criminalizes tolerance and knowledge of drug use by EDM venues.

Before the RAVE Act, more measures to limit risk were in place.

“DanceSafe and organizations like that would test drugs,” Anderson said. “There would be a location outside the event where you could take your pills and they would tell you their composition, their purity.”

Some venues also had a free-surrender policy for drugs at the gate.

After the RAVE Act, however, venues and organizations like DanceSafe are afraid to appear they condone drug use in any way, and have avoided offering services to test pills or handing out educational materials.

Goldsmith explained she has nothing against the music, or even the events themselves, comparing them to rock concerts in past decades.

“The concerts are not the problem — it’s the owners and operators that are being prohibited from protecting their concert-goers because they’re afraid of being prosecuted,” she said.

Fighting EDM drug use: A Legislative history

In 1998, the death of another teenager — 17-year old Jillian Kirkland from Alabama — led Joe Biden, who was a Democratic senator from Delaware at the time, to introduce the Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act. Updated legislation was later renamed the Illicit Drug Non-Proliferation Act, but it is still commonly known as the RAVE Act.

Dede Goldsmith said the act was initially very successful in curbing illegal behavior by venue owners but has since deterred a newer set of owners from providing necessary hydration measures.

The act gives law enforcement officials the power to shut down underground raves where promoters were not only condoning the use of drugs, but often actively selling them.

The legislation includes specific language to hold venue owners responsible for drug use on their premises — which is referred to as maintaining a “drug-involved premise” — and subjects them to prosecution.

Venue owners found in violation of the law are punishable by a $250,000 fine or “2 times the gross receipts, either known or estimated, that were derived from each violation that is attributable to the person,” according to the law’s language.

The language was an amendment to the federal Anti-Drug Abuse Act, said Cameron Bowman, a criminal defense attorney who has professionally interacted with the RAVE Act in the past.

Bowman said the original federal law which the RAVE Act amended was known as the “crack house laws,” and was used for “prosecuting crack houses and … landlords that knew their buildings were used for drug sales.”

“The way it [the anti-drug abuse act] was amended was to basically make it a crime to maintain a ‘drug-involved premise,’” Bowman said. “There were a lot of assurances in Congress and from Biden that this would never be used against legitimate promoters.”

Congressional debate framed the act as taking ecstasy more seriously than it had previously.

“Despite the conventional wisdom that ecstasy and other club drugs are ‘no big deal,’ a view that even the New York Times Magazine espoused in a cover story, these drugs can have serious consequences, and can even be fatal,” Biden said in Congress on Jan. 28, 2003.

Contrary to those promises, Bowman said there were instances of the RAVE Act’s misuse in practice shortly following its passage. As a result, the Drug Enforcement Administration put out a memo in 2003 attempting to clarify its usage.

“The memo says that property owners not personally involved in drug activity should not be prosecuted,” Bowman said.

In his experience, Bowman said, fear is widespread among legitimate promoters and festival organizers that they will be prosecuted under the RAVE Act despite good-will efforts to provide a safe environment.

“I can tell you that it is something that promoters and organizers and festivals will say that they’re concerned about,” Bowman said. “I’ve had conversations with people in that field that say they want to do more [for safety].”

It is that fear that Goldsmith hopes to respond to by supporting amendments to the RAVE Act.

Culture beyond RAVE act

Anderson and Goldsmith both said the RAVE Act did its job when it was introduced. It effectively shut down the underground illegal drug party scene, without eliminating rave culture altogether.

As the number of underground raves and rogue promoters declined after 2003, more commercialized rave venues increased — and the popularization of EDM as a mainstream genre began.

“The grassroots rave scene had peaked and declined, and what was left was the highly commercialized venues,” Anderson said.

Anderson said that though festivals make plenty of money at large, commercialized events, safety and health services “would require them to expend money.”

“I don’t know if they’d be willing to hire, to pay for these services, and if it becomes part of what they provide, it might increase their insurance costs,” Anderson said.

Anderson also said the commercialized, popular electronic dance music of today is more lyrics-based, at times “actually calling for Molly use.” The issue is compounded as some stars, such as Miley Cyrus, openly endorse drug use. These factors create “perfect storm to give people permission to use Molly,” Anderson said.

The larger-scale venues and higher volume of people at today’s rave events also contribute to health risks. Furthermore, at high-energy concerts which last through the night, or in some cases multiple days — New York’s Electric Zoo Festival is a three-day event, for example — the temptation to use stimulants may be greater.

“It is a culture whose event is structured for drug use,” Anderson said.

Anderson describes in the issues endemic in modern rave culture in her paper “Molly Deaths, and Why the Drug War Won’t Clean Up Rave Culture.”

“While the number of MDMA users has declined, health complications from the drug have increased,” Anderson writes. “There has been a 128 percent uptick in emergency room visits among MDMA users between 2005 and 2011, according to the Drug Abuse Warning Network.”

Gov. Terry McAuliffe appointed Goldsmith to the Virginia Commission on Youth, a bipartisan legislative commission whose purpose is “to study and provide recommendations addressing the needs of and services to Virginia’s youth,” Goldsmith said in an email.

She has been in touch with members of Congress, and has worked with legal counsel to pen the language of the amendment, though it is likely be transformed in the legislative process.

As of Wednesday night, the petition had 1,999 signatures.


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