WASHINGTON, D.C. — University of Virginia junior Dominique Vletter remembers how she and Shelley Goldsmith linked arms with their friends and snaked their way to the front of the crowd of thousands at Echostage — a sprawling nightclub in Washington — in August 2013. Onstage, Swedish DJ duo Dada Life threw inflatable bananas into the crowd, and the friends sang along to its song “So Young, So High.”
They danced for so long, their sweat soaked through their denim shorts. It was hot outside, but inside was worse — and bottles of water cost $5.
The next thing Vletter heard was that Goldsmith had been taken away in an ambulance due to dehydration. She later died of MDMA intoxication.
Shelley Goldsmith’s mother, Dede Goldsmith, insists drugs aren’t entirely to blame for her daughter’s death.
“The critical thing in Shelley’s case is that it was used in an environment that was unsafe,” Dede Goldsmith said. “MDMA has been shown to cause hyperthermia in overcrowded, hot environments.”
MDMA, ecstasy, Molly — they’re all names for the euphoria-inducing club drug that has gone hand in hand with electronic music scenes around the globe, from the late 1980s British acid-house movement to the 1990s U.S. rave craze.
Goldsmith’s new Amend the RAVE Act campaign, launched in August, calls for protection for music promoters who want to increase harm-reduction strategies like free water and cool-down areas at events like the one her daughter attended. As it stands, some promoters say they can’t provide those services because it implies they are acknowledging and encouraging drug use at their events.
An 11-year-old federal law, they said, stands in their way.
In June 2002 then-Sen. Joe Biden, who served as chairman of the International Narcotics Control Caucus, introduced the RAVE (Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy) Act — a controversial piece of legislation that some say was intended to dismantle raves.
“Each year, tens of thousands of young people are initiated into the drug culture at ‘rave’ parties or events,” Biden’s original RAVE Act text read. “According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, raves have become little more than a way to exploit American youth.”
The bill added that rave promoters capitalize on drug use among young people “by selling overpriced bottles of water and charging entrance fees to ‘chill rooms’ where users can cool down.” The framers of the bill pointed to the sale of glow sticks, massage oils, menthol nasal inhalers and pacifiers at events “to enhance the effects of the drugs patrons have ingested.”
“It’s kind of unbelievable what they put in there,” Stefanie Jones, nightlife community engagement manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, said of the RAVE Act. “It wasn’t very politically savvy, but it was more honest about what it was trying to do, which was essentially target a particular community.”
The electronic music scene lashed back, claiming the legislation was typical war on drugs fodder. Dance-party protests were held in several U.S. cities, including on the Capitol Lawn.
As a result, the RAVE Act was modified (with all the talk of glow sticks and pacifiers removed), renamed the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, tacked onto the unrelated and unanimously approved PROTECT Act, and signed into law in April 2003. It was a strange pairing — a drug clause attached to a bill that detailed sex-offender registries, child obscenity protections and the AMBER Alert.
Biden protested claims that he was attacking raves by saying the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act was just an extension of crackhouse laws, which applied to landlords who knowingly allow people to use, make or sell drugs on their property. The new bill, Biden explained, would close one more loophole: promoters who rented out a property where they knew drug use would occur.
Critics of the law say that although the RAVE Act did not pass, the spirit of it remains in the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation law — which makes it unlawful for promoters to host events where they know drugs will be sold or used. According to Goldsmith, rave organizers have been spooked away from implementing any safety measures that could imply organizers were encouraging drug use.
Shelly Goldsmith’s death was one of several drug-related fatalities at EDM shows in the summer of 2013. Three New York showgoers died after taking MDMA that had been cut with methylone, a drug closely related to bath salts. During Washington state’s Paradiso Festival 2013, a 21-year-old man — one of over 70 people hospitalized that weekend — died after taking what he thought was MDMA. His autopsy showed it was methamphetamine. Goldsmith had pure MDMA in her system.
Tammy Anderson, a sociology and criminal justice professor at the University of Delaware, has studied the evolution of rave culture from the underground parties of the 1980s and ’90s to the massive touring EDM (electronic dance music) festivals of today like Electric Daisy Carnival and Paradiso Festival — events Anderson said bear little resemblance to original raves.
“It used to be that these raves, if they had a big crowd, it was maybe 10,000 people. Most of the time, it was a couple hundred kids out there,” she said.
In the mid-2000s, EDM producers paired up with pop stars like Kelly Rowland and Nicki Minaj, bringing the style into the mainstream. And shows grew into gigantic dance parties, taking over arenas and major concert venues and boasting over-the-top visual presentations. Electric Daisy Carnival attracted 140,000 attendees at its Las Vegas show this June.
That’s where things get truly dangerous, Anderson said. “It’s one thing to deny 500 kids or 800 kids access to water facilities. It’s different to do it for 50,000 people dancing outside in the summertime all night.”
During a Reddit Ask Me Anything session in June of this year, Pasquale Rotella, CEO of Insomniac and Electric Daisy Carnival, told listeners bluntly that his organization is reluctant to have harm-reduction education services at its events because of fears stemming from the RAVE Act.
“When the DEA started going after innocent event producers under the crack house law [the Controlled Substances Act], having DanceSafe at an event was one of the things they looked at to justify putting them in jail for 20 years,” Rotella wrote, referring to nonprofit DanceSafe, which provides harm-reduction services at electronic music events.
But Anderson and Jones say they don’t know any rave promoters who have been punished under the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, and Rotella’s company did not respond to emails asking for examples of promoters who were prosecuted under the law. In fact, the only time Jones has heard of the law being used was in Billings, Montana, in 2003. A Drug Enforcement Agency agent approached an Eagles Lodge that planned to host a benefit concert for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, saying that if any attendee at the event smoked marijuana, the lodge would be fined under the new law. The event was canceled. Biden later said that was the wrong way to implement the law.
How exactly the law should be used is unclear. The Drug Policy Alliance argues that the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act reaches far beyond just rave culture. An analysis posted on the DPA website claims the act could be used in criminalizing even the average backyard barbecuing homeowner. The site reads, “Anyone who used drugs in their own home or threw an event (such as a party or barbecue) in which one or more of their guests used drugs could potentially face a $500,000 fine and up to 20 years in a federal prison.”
Despite the apprehension and confusion, some organizations are taking steps to promote safer drug use at electronic music events.
Harm Reduction International, an organization that works to promote “human rights based approaches to drug policy,” points to pill testing at events, which can not only tell users what they’re about to take but also help gather information about drug consumption trends. Groups like Bunk Police are more guerrilla with their approach, chucking drug-testing kits over fences and smuggling them into concerts through food trucks.
Brad Burge, of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), said taking MDMA in a hot, packed, chaotic EDM show is one of the worst ways to experience the drug. MAPS studies the use of MDMA for patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and Burge said the safest context for the drug is in a therapeutic setting. He says it’s up to show organizers to provide as therapeutic an environment as possible. He points to MAPS’ Zendo Project, a safe space for people having difficult psychedelic experiences at the annual Burning Man Festival.
Paradiso Festival boasted more doctors, more water stations and more shade tents than before. Electric Zoo pushed the festival an earlier hour to avoid hotter temperatures but still received criticism when it banned Camelback hydration backpacks at the festival, tweeting, “After consulting with our medical and security experts, we determined the safest way for fans to hydrate during the concert is by using the free cups provided at our high-speed water stations.”
Over Labor Day weekend, E-Zoo ticket holders in New York had to validate their wristbands online by watching a video depicting a young man taking too much MDMA and advising patrons to avoid the risks.
“It’s a huge step for sure to go from completely ignoring the fact that these drugs are being used to admitting it blatantly,” Burge said. “The next step is not coming out with this message of ‘Just don’t do it’ … That means you’re no longer communicating with a significant portion of people who are going to take the drugs anyway.”