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Outside View: No Raves for RAVE

 

WASHINGTON, Aug. 4 (UPI) -- What if you threw a party and nobody came? Under a new party-pooping federal law known as the "RAVE Act," this exception may become the rule for any organization promoting views with which the federal government disagrees.

Congress sneaked through the legislation in April as an eleventh-hour amendment to the Child Abduction Prevention Act, more popularly known as the "Amber Alert" law. Under its provisions, law enforcement may criminally prosecute business owners and promoters who control or manage a facility "for the purpose of unlawfully manufacturing, storing, distributing, or using a controlled substance." But while the expressed purpose of the law is to target owners who knowingly maintain drug-dealing establishments such as crack houses, critics maintain that its true intent is to strike at the heart of the First Amendment, and silence the activities of the nation's burgeoning drug law reform movement.

A case in point. In Montana the Drug Enforcement Administration cited the "RAVE Act" to pre-emptively shut down a scheduled benefit concert for the local student affiliate of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

According to published reports, the DEA informed the venue's management the day of the show that they could be prosecuted and fined $250,000 if even one concert-goer was busted smoking marijuana. Aware of the likelihood that some attendees might indulge in a toke while listening to their favorite bands, the management abruptly pulled the plug on the concert -- costing NORML and SSDP untold dollars in lost advertising and potential donations.

Other musical acts -- including several of those booked for the joint NORML/SSDP benefit -- had played the venue previously without incident or interference from the Feds. So why was the DEA paying special attention to this show? Most likely because the expressed intent of the concert was to raise funds to aid NORML and SSDP's support of a pending statewide medical marijuana legalization initiative -- an aim that the Bush Administration ardently opposes.

Coincidence or federal intimidation? Civil libertarians seeking an explanation presume the latter. Noting that almost any large concert or gathering could be targeted under the DEA's overly broad interpretation of the law, a coalition of groups are working with NORML and the American Civil Liberties Union to file a federal lawsuit to enjoin the "RAVE Act" on grounds that it violates First Amendment protections of free speech and free assembly.

In anticipation of the suit, and in response to public criticism over the DEA's action in Montana, the agency recently issued guidelines informing field agents that business owners "are not in violation of the law just because a patron engages in illegal activity on their property." Nevertheless, many are fearful that the Bush Administration will continue to use the "RAVE Act" as a weapon to quash growing public debate over drug policy.

After all, it was only in June that Congressional House Republicans tried sneaking through legislation to use taxpayer funds to produce partisan advertisements targeting drug reform ballot proposals and/or potentially "soft-on-drugs" candidates -- purposes that had previously been explicitly prohibited under federal law. The proposal was eventually turned back by a coalition of House Democrats, many of whom were responding to concerns from outraged constituents, but the message was clear.

No longer content to debate on a level playing field, federal drug warriors are now seeking to manipulate the law to stack the deck decisively in their favor. No doubt the recent passage and subsequent abuse of the "RAVE Act" swings the pendulum momentarily their way, but at what price to the fundamental freedoms the Bush Administration has sworn to uphold?

-- Paul Armentano is a senior policy analyst for the National Foundation, a group that supports the liberalization of America's marijuana laws, in Washington.

-- Outside View commentaries are written for UPI by outside writers who specialize in subjects of public interest.