Federal agents in Montana have used a controversial new federal law to shut down a benefit to raise money for Students for Sensible Drug Policy and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. The law, known as the RAVE Act, makes it easier for the federal government to fine and jail property owners for the drug offenses of their customers. On May 30th an agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) told managers of the Eagle Lodge in Billings, Montana that the Lodge could be fined $250,000 if anyone smoked marijuana during a planned benefit to raise money for a campaign to change Montana's medical marijuana law. After consulting their attorneys, the Eagle Lodge canceled the event. The incident is believed to be the first time the law has been used since it was enacted in April. It occurred only a day before protests against the law were held around the country.
"The Drug Policy Alliance warned Congress that the RAVE Act was so broad it would be used to intimidate innocent business owners and stifle free speech," said Bill Piper, Associate Director of National Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "And now, only a month after it became law, federal agents are using it to shut down political events they don't approve of."
Sponsored by Senator Biden (D-DE), the RAVE Act (also known as the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act) was first introduced last year. It proved so controversial then that two of its original co-sponsors withdrew their support because they feared it would send innocent business owners to jail. Business owners collected over 20,000 signatures in opposition to the bill. Protests against it were held around the country and tens of thousands of voters urged their elected official to oppose it. Controversy over the bill stalled it last year, but Senator Biden snuck it onto the popular "Amber Alert" bill without public debate or a vote of Congress earlier this year and it quickly became law.
The RAVE Act expands federal law to make it easier to jail and imprison event organizers and property owners that fail to stop drug offenses from occurring on their property -- even in cases when they take serious steps to reduce drug offenses. It applies to "any place", including bars and nightclubs, hotels, apartment buildings, and homes. Legal experts warned that the law was so broad that it could be used to shut down not only raves and electronic music events, but also hip hop, rock, and country music concerts, sporting events, gay and lesbian fundraisers, political protests, and any other event organized by people or groups federal agents not approve of or like.
On many occasions before the RAVE Act was passed Senator Biden assured voters, reporters, and Members of Congress that it would not be used to target free speech or innocent business owners, and that it would only be used against "rogue" promoters that distributed drugs at their events. What is startling about the Billings, Montana case is that it not only targets political speech, it also targets innocent business owners not connected to the sale or use of drugs in any way.
"We told Senator Biden this would happen and he ignored our warnings," said Bill Piper. "Now, business owners across the country can be prosecuted for the crimes of their customers and the Ashcroft Justice Department has a new tool to suppress political event it doesn't like."
Dozens of local groups across the country are coming together to form a national coalition to repeal the law. Thousands of angry voters have gathered in Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York City this year to protest the law. A large protest against the bill is planned for September 6th across from the U.S. Capitol.
Opponents of the bill note that the RAVE Act has many concerning implications:
It endangers our nation's youth by discouraging business owners from enacting safety measures and by driving raves and other musical events into underground markets.
It stifles musical expression and is a threat to free speech and the right to dance.
It is too broadly written and could subject innocent business owners to enormous fines or prison sentences. (It also lowers the burden of proof that prosecutors must meet to punish suspected violators).
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