When Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) introduced his RAVE Act legislation last year, it was a slam dunk waiting to happen. Teenagers, drugs, freaky-looking ravers -- bills aimed at these types of things don't stall in Congress. But a chorus of protest convinced the Senate to refresh its collective memory of the First Amendment, and upon closer reading many -- including two of the RAVE Act's co-sponsors -- dropped their support for the bill.
Faced with such pesky opposition, Biden employed one of the American legislative system's oldest methods for passing unpopular laws -- he changed the act's name and attached it to a popular bill.
The newly titled "Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act" is virtually identical to the RAVE Act in scope and consequence. It expands the federal "crackhouse statute" to apply to any gathering where drugs are present, from mass migration circuit parties to the barbeques held in your back yard. The gist is simple: If anyone at a party is caught with drugs, the person throwing the party can be accused of providing a space for drug use and sentenced to up to twenty years in prison.
The RAVE Act stalled in congress last year when its constitutional conflicts were exposed, but last week, Biden managed to railroad it through by attaching it to a larger bill that was widely expected to pass. That high-profile bill, known as the Amber Alert Bill, deals with child abductions and the sexual exploitation of children. Wedged in among these topics, Biden's RAVE Act sticks out like a clearly unrelated sore thumb.
Nevertheless, the Amber Alert Bill passed with Biden's legislation included.
"Senator Biden does not consider the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act to be unrelated [to the Amber Alert Bill]," said Biden's Deputy Press Secretary Chip Unruh. "It's about protecting kids from being exploited."
But many are skeptical, including one of the bill's own co-sponsors, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT). The day the bill passed, he issued a press release that expressed his misgivings about the inclusion of Biden's legislation -- Leahy even referred to it by its original title, the RAVE Act.
"I know that I am not alone in hearing from many constituents about their serious and well-considered objections to [this bill]," said Leahy. "Despite this opposition, and even though the Senate has never held a hearing on this bill, the conference committee agreed to include it in this hastily-assembled package.
"I know that Senator Biden has made changes to the bill since the last Congress, beginning with its title, and I appreciate his flexibility. But these changes do not address some of the questions that have been raised about this legislation."
The objections that Leahy refers to are many, but the two most serious arguments are that the bill puts innocent party promoters at risk for persecution, and that the law will actually make parties less safe for patrons.
"The enforcement of the law rests in the hands of local prosecutors who will now have a tool to selectively target and prosecute events or groups they don't like," says Mark Lee, promoter of the Sunday night party Lizard Lounge. "Biden has produced a sloppily crafted and ill-advised piece of legislation that will result primarily in unintended, yet serious consequences, including the prosecution of innocent people."
Bill McColl, Director of National Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, agrees.
"Prosecutorial bias is going to play a role," he says. "GLBT events, hip hop and raves are going to be especially vulnerable."
But the second major objection that many have to the RAVE Act challenges its central tenet: that it will actually worsen, rather than improve, America's drug problem.
Because the RAVE Act's effectiveness rests on prosecutors' proof that club owners and party promoters "knowingly and intentionally" made their space available for drug use, even mild harm reduction efforts could be used against the people throwing the parties. Therefore, promoters may decide to eliminate even the most basic safety measures, such as on-site ambulances, for fear that they could be used in court later to prove that promoters knew drugs were present.
"People have asked me what I will do to protect myself from this law," says Lee. "I tell them, there's nothing you can do except not respond to the possibility that drugs might be at your event."
McColl would like to see the bill revised to account for this.
"At a minimum, we'd like to see safe harbors created," he says. "That is, making it crystal clear that providing water, having medical personnel, using good public health practices...is all legal behavior."
With the bill now cleared for President Bush's signature, however, any repeal or revision will have to wait.
"We're going to have to sit down with members of congress now," says McColl, "and figure out what we can do realistically, and what we can't."