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Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself
[June 9, 2003]

By S. M. Oliva

Last August, I wrote at length in opposition to the “RAVE Act,” a smarmy piece of “anti-drug” legislation being peddled by Sen. Joseph Biden, Delaware Democrat. At that time, the RAVE Act failed to pass Congress. But this year, snuck in to an unrelated bill at the last minute, Biden’s proposal passed without any debate or discussion. Since the substance of the final version is substantially unaltered from Biden’s proposal of last summer, I’ll briefly reiterate my remarks describing the bill:

The Rave Act is designed to expand the federal "crack-house" statute to cover certain kinds of electronic music concerts, known as raves, on the dubious ground that these particular concerts are prone to drug use among patrons. The bill would make it a federal crime to "knowingly" operate or lease property "permanently or temporarily...for the purpose of unlawfully manufacturing, storing, distributing, or using a controlled substance."

That may sound innocent enough, but the purpose of the bill is manifestly clear: Concert promoters will be held criminally and civilly liable for any drug use that may occur on premises they are operating. The RAVE Act has nothing to do with reducing drug use, and everything to do with giving politically motivated prosecutors a tool to go after innocent businessmen who have no ties to the drug trade.

Right off the bat, the RAVE Act creates a non-objective law. What does that mean? It means that the language is so vague as to render it impossible for anyone to know what specific conduct will actually make them liable under the law. For example, unlike the current crack-house law, the RAVE Act says an owner is liable if his premises are "temporarily" used for drug purposes. This one word actually negates the entire purpose of the crack-house law in the first place! A crack-house is supposed to be a building or property whose purpose is to facilitate drug use. The purpose of a concert is to, well, entertain people with musical performances. That's not illegal. But under the RAVE Act, if even one person is using drugs at a show, that can technically create civil and criminal liability for the owner.

Needless to say, it didn’t take long for the first major abuse of the RAVE Act to occur. The Drug Reform Coordination Network has this report:

An agent of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) used threats of RAVE Act prosecutions to intimidate the owners of a Billings, Montana, venue into a canceling a combined benefit for the Montana chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and Students for Sensible Drug Policy last week.

While the Billings event was advertised as a benefit concert for two local groups interested in drug law reform -- not as a drug-taking orgy -- it still attracted the attention of the DEA. On May 30, the day the event was set to take place, a Billings-based DEA agent showed up at the Eagle Lodge, which had booked the concert. Waving a copy of the RAVE Act in one hand, the agent warned that the lodge could face a fine of $250,000 if someone smoked a joint during the benefit, according to Eagle Lodge manager Kelly, who asked that her last name not be used.

"He freaked me out," Kelly told DRCNet. "He didn't tell us we couldn't have the event, but he showed me the law and told us what could happen if we did. I talked to our trustees, they talked to our lawyers, and our lawyers said not to risk it, so we canceled," she said. "I felt bad. I knew the guys in the bands."

The RAVE Act has no valid law enforcement purpose. The initiative to pass this legislation came after federal prosecutors in Louisiana failed in their efforts to apply the existing crack-house statute to the owner of a concert venue where some illegal drug activity allegedly took place. Federal anti-drug officials apparently believe if they can suppress any gathering where drug use may occur, they will actually win the “war” on drugs. Years of empirical evidence documenting the government’s failure apparently does little to convince them of their error, to say nothing of the obvious violation of individual rights that takes place as officials demand more and more power.

In the case outlined above, the government’s goal had nothing to do with fighting drugs, and everything to do with censoring views the government disagrees with. This is by no means an isolated incident. Last year, White House drug policy chief John Walters actively campaigned—using taxpayer funds—in Nevada to encourage the defeat of a state referendum to partially decriminalize medical marijuana. Walter did so despite a federal law banning such overt political activity under the official color of office. Although the Marijuana Policy Project, a key backer of the referendum, filed official complaints with federal and state officials, no action has been taken against Walters, whose “anti-drug” mission apparently grants him immunity to disobey the law at will.

Far from exercising their own oversight, some members of Congress, led by Indiana Republican Rep. Mark Souder, want to legalize the drug czar’s actions. Souder has proposed freeing up the drug czar to spend whatever federal funds he wishes to campaign against any ballot initiative or candidate which supports decriminalizing drugs. This would, in theory, permit Walters to bankroll ads against members of Congress who support any liberalization of the drug laws. That such a proposal would engender anything other than immediate censure of Souder is a testament to just how powerful a weapon fear has become in stifling rational debate—and individual rights—in modern America.

It’s not just the drug issue where this is a problem. In antitrust, my specialty, the Federal Trade Commission has been on a rampage to suppress thoughts and viewpoints inconsistent with the personal beliefs of Commission staff. The clearest manifestation of this trend in three recent prosecutions of private membership associations, all of which were forced by the FTC to sign consent orders renouncing portions of their ethics codes. None of the three challenged ethics codes posed even a slight threat to any person’s legal rights—indeed, one of the challenged codes had never been enforced at all. Yet the FTC’s orders said the associations could not maintain or express any ethical opinion which the Commission considered improper. The mere acts of thought and speech now constitute antitrust violations worthy of federal prosecution. Is it any wonder the RAVE Act has already been abused to suppress similar heresies against government doctrine?

Fear is the common denominator in all these incidents. By raising the hint of an unpopular consequence—be it increased drug use or “monopolization” of industry—government officials are able to expand their control over society without having to rationally defend their premises and ideas. No debate is necessary when people are convinced that immediate harm will come to them unless the government acts without delay. The result of such cognitive dissonance, of course, is to slowly erode basic individual liberties in the name of statism. The question which remains is, how far will the people allow this to go? At what point does deference to regulators yield to the people’s assertion of rational self-interest? Perhaps the incident in Billings will mark a turning point, a moment at which thinking men and women will start to look at government actions for what they are, rather than for what they are spun as by the fear-peddlers. Perhaps we can even start a serious discussion in this country over the larger abuses of power, such as antitrust, which have been allowed to control our lives for almost a century.

The only other option is to stare down into the void of despotism and hope the situation will correct itself. Of course, that’s not a rational option, but when a people become dominated by fear, they have nothing to look forward to except fear itself. Reason is ultimately the only light which will cast away that fear.


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