Rave Robbers

Feds Steal the Fun From Nightlife

Nevertheless, the law's malleability makes it extremely frightening for promoters and club owners.

"[The decision] put a damper on their case," says Estopinal. "Public opinion is still very important to them. They might have to rethink their strategy. How can they justify threatening me with 20 years in jail and then letting [the Brunets] go with a $100,000 fine? It's a big difference."

Soon after the New Orleans case, the feds found another target—Club La Vela in Panama City Beach, Florida, which bills itself as the largest club in the nation, and is featured during MTV's spring break coverage. The owners of Club La Vela, Patrick and

Thorsten Pfeffer, were charged with two counts of operating a crack house, which subjected them to potential criminal forfeiture provisions, which, unlike the New Orleans case, opens the door for seizing the club's assets. (The brothers deny the charges and are countersuing the city for illegal search and seizure and for violating their First Amendment rights, and will go to trial this month.)

According to the ACLU, the feds' new usage of the statute raises several freedom of speech concerns. The New Orleans plea states that glow sticks and dust masks, as well as vapor rubs and inhalers—all typically associated with raves—can be considered drug paraphernalia. The feds also nixed massage tables and "chill rooms," or "areas in the theater which are purposely kept 15 degrees cooler than the rest of the theater."

"A glow stick or vapor rub is not, per se, drug paraphernalia. It depends on the context," says Winters.

The inclusion of such normally benign items in the plea is akin to profiling, reminiscent of early-'90s hip-hop dress codes at nightclubs banning gangsta or gangsta-like attire. "[The government's] argument is preposterous and will fall on its own force," says Boyd. "Those items are certainly not drug paraphernalia."

Chris Kausch, co-owner of Stuck on Earth, a New York production company responsible for some of the city's largest electronic events, including the annual pre-Halloween bash Boo, dismisses the DEA's definition, calling the accessories "fashion." "The first time I got a glow stick, I was at Great Adventure," says Kausch.

The State Palace Theater investigation began after the 1998 death of Jillian Kirkland, a 17-year-old who collapsed on the dancefloor. Though it is still unclear what drugs she took, the feds' target is clear: Ecstasy.

Though Ecstasy's been a prominent part of club culture for well over a decade, recent drug busts—like last year's seizure of 2.1 million pills (worth $40 million) at Los Angeles International Airport—and a study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reporting a substantial increase in use among high school 12th-graders—from 5.6 percent in 1999 to 8.2 percent in 2000—have raised its profile considerably. The federal government has responded with Operation Rave Review—an extension of its War on Drugs—and a new, lean strategy designed to specifically combat "club drugs," a phrase coined by NIDA.

Last July, agents gave speeches at a Club Drug conference in Arlington, Virginia, on the dangers of Ecstasy, complete with slang terms like "rolling" and "candy flipping," and showed a nine-minute videotape of ravers high on E rubbing vapor rub and waving glow sticks, presumably to accentuate their highs.

But, as Gatien points out, drug-free clubs and raves are an unrealistic, impossible goal. "Maximum-security prisons have a big drug problem. You can't expect clubs to be an oasis where no crime occurs," says Gatien.

"The DEA's really locking into the idea that the underground dance scene and the mass distribution of drugs are linked," says Philip Rodriguez, general manager of the West Twenties club Baktun, who was recently granted a cabaret license after a year-long fight with the city. "They've got it in their mind that these issues are twin cousins. It makes me really nervous."

"Rave and rap are bad words in the concert industry," says Matt E. Silver. "If you say you have a rap show, your insurance goes up threefold. If you say you have a rave, you're going to have a community battle."

The DEA's campaign is in some ways just the tip of the anti-club legislation iceberg. Across the country, city governments are using new methods to stem raves and electronic music events, which they see as havens for the use of Ecstasy and other drugs. In Chicago, an ordinance passed in May 2000 subjecting promoters of events in unlicensed venues up to $10,000 in fines (written so widely that even the DJ could be hit); in Saint Louis, Missouri, promoters are now required to end events at 3 a.m.; and, says Patterson, cities like Detroit are using local laws similar to the crack house statute to go after club promoters and owners.

So it's no longer a matter if the feds will use this law in New York, but rather, when. And the biggest question is, Who's next?

"If they succeed with electronic music," says Patterson, "then hip-hop and rock-concert promoters have something to worry about."

If anything, Twilo's closure signifies the end of New York as the clubbing capital of the world. New York's nightlife gave birth to countless fashion, musical, and cultural trends via places like Studio 54 and Danceteria, which existed in a golden era predating task forces and quality-of-life campaigns. Even Madonna, who was a dancer at Danceteria, is a product of New York's club scene. "Clubs are cultural venues in some ways, and they don't get seen as such," says Rodriguez. "Rudy has such a hard-on for our industry, I don't think he knows the difference between the Tunnel and the Knitting Factory."

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