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June 20, 2001 | Witness the humble glowstick. This neon yellow tube of light, testament to the wonders of the nontoxic chemical reaction, is popular at Britney Spears concerts, Mardi Gras parades and summer street fairs. But because glowsticks are also commonly found at raves, where partiers wave them about during their dance-floor kinetics, they have become a curious casualty of the government's war on drugs.
An injunction handed down against a group of New Orleans party promoters last Wednesday charges that glowsticks -- along with pacifiers, Vicks VapoRub and dust masks -- are "drug paraphernalia," and their presence on a dance floor is a sign that illegal drug activity is taking place.
In response, the promoters have banned glowsticks from their clubs, along with chill rooms, where partyers might go to catch their breath (or where they might, in the eyes of the authorities, go to take their drugs), and massage tables (where God knows what nefarious activities might occur). The injunction seems to imply that if you take away the chill rooms and the glowsticks, you take away the drugs.
It's bafflingly backward logic, but then again, the federal government's war on drugs hasn't always made sense.
The demonization of the cheery little glowstick is the harbinger of a topsy-turvy new front in that increasingly bizarre conflict. As teens continue to gobble ecstasy, ketamine, speed and GHB at frightening rates, everything and everyone is vulnerable. While the owners of venues like nightclubs where patrons do illegal acts have always been subject to crackdowns, grim prosecutors are now targeting dance clubs with leaky old "crack house" laws from the 1980s, and threatening owners and promoters with decades in prison.
In this new era, even promoters who try to stop drug use are vulnerable. Call the cops on a drug-using patron and you've marked yourself as the owner of a drug operation. Hire an ambulance as a precaution against overdoses, or let a harm-reduction group like DanceSafe distribute literature, and you've done the same thing.
If the New Orleans case should set a national standard, not only will ravers lose their glowsticks, but the entire dance community could potentially lose its clubs, concert halls and parties -- and, in the most drastic cases, ravers could lose their lives.
"The government is engaged in an outright war on nightclubs, which they hope will make it appear that they are doing something to stop the drug epidemic," says Will Patterson, who runs the Electronic Music Defense and Education Fund, which raised $50,000 for the New Orleans promoters' defense. "But if you take away the clubs, [drug users] just go somewhere [else]. The nightclubs are at least trying to combat drug use in every way they can."
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"Lately raves are just a venue for drug purchases. They are no more than analogous to a crack house, in which you go buy the drugs and go out the back door. Although there's music being played, and the people at the raves are saying, 'I come here for the music,' drugs are predominant in these rave clubs. And it's just a mix of drugs and music, and it's become a venue for drug purchases."
By any measure, the government's war on drugs has been a failure. Despite the fact that the government spent $17.9 billion battling drugs last year -- and arrested 1,532,200 people on drug charges the year before -- the number of young adult drug users has not significantly changed since it hit a peak in 1997, according to the annual Monitoring the Future study. Fifty-four percent of all high school seniors have done drugs, and the drugs they are doing are harder. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 8.2 percent of all high school seniors did MDMA, or ecstasy, in 2000 (up from 5.6 percent the year before). Drugs like GHB (a liquid that mildly mimics the floaty, euphoric sensation of ecstasy) and ketamine (an animal tranquilizer that, when snorted, sends the user into a hallucinatory state like catatonia), which once were used primarily by New Agers seeking psychedelic epiphanies, are also on the rise among young adults and teens.
And these harder drugs can be dangerous. More than 2,850 people were admitted to hospitals for what were termed "ecstasy overdoses" in 1999, according to the Drug Abuse Warning Network. And although DAWN reports that the number of deaths from drugs like ketamine, ecstasy and GHB was relatively small between 1994 and 1998 (12 died from GHB, 47 from ketamine, 27 from ecstasy), that data is several years old. The DanceSafe organization now cites at least 100 ecstasy-related deaths. The vast majority of these, however, were not overdoses but the result of becoming overheated on the dance floor or ingesting pills sold as ecstasy that were actually dangerous substances like DXM, a cough suppressant that can cause overheating if taken in large quantities, and the stimulant PMA.
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