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Florida Lawmakers Try to Crack Down on "Raves," and Associated Drugs


May-June 1997

Florida lawmakers are trying to stop late-night teen dance parties called "raves," and increase control of drugs reportedly used at raves. The news media is touting raves as a new phenomenon with drug use, overdose deaths, murders and sexual assaults related to the parties ("Florida Targets Teen 'Raves' and Their Associated Drugs," Drug Enforcement Report, March 24, 1997, p. 1; Mike Schneider, "Orlando Targets All-Night Dance Clubs," Miami Herald, April 4, 1997, p. 5B).

Raves, as seen in Florida, are held in bars after they stop serving liquor (2:00 a.m.). [Bars are frequently rented to promoters to hold raves.] The events attract large crowds of teens and young adults. The parties have been held secretly for years at warehouses or open fields. Often advertised on the Internet and at alternative music stores, raves feature light shows and disc jockeys playing dance music. Law enforcement officials claim that raves have become a major venue for the use and selling of "club" or "designer" drugs, particularly methamphetamines, LSD, MDMA ("ecstasy"), ketamine ("special K"), Rohypnol®, and GHB (gamma-hydroxybutyrate) or "liquid ecstasy."

Recently in Florida there have been reports of sexual assaults, overdose deaths and murders related to raves. The late-night parties "have become hunting grounds for sexual predators in both gay and heterosexual communities," said one law enforcement official. Officials report that sexual predators slip sedatives, such as Rohypnol®, into their victim's drinks at raves in order to rape them. In January, 19-year-old Christopher Shersty, who allegedly sold drugs at Tampa raves, was found decapitated shortly after he told friends that he feared for his life over a $5,000 drug debt. In February, a rave in Daytona Beach reportedly ended in the murder of a college student.

Orlando is said to have largest number of raves, due in part to a growing work force of young people who get off late and want some place to party. Last year in Orlando, at least 30 teens were taken away by ambulance from raves. In March, a rave in Orlando that attracted 5,000 people made national news after five young people were rushed to hospitals and 16 were arrested on drug dealing charges at the party (Reuter, "5 people hospitalized, 16 arrested after drug-laden party in Florida," Rocky Mountain News (Denver), March 18, 1997, p. 32A). City officials have formed a task force to explore ways to reduce the use of illicit drugs at such dance parties, including suggestions of police-sponsored raves or all-night dances held by churches.

In March, state lawmakers passed a mandatory minimum sentencing bill that made Rohypnol® a Schedule I drug under state law. Under the bill, possession or trafficking in more than 4 grams of the drug could result in $50,000 fine and jail time, and trafficking in more than 30 kilograms could result in life imprisonment without parole. The bill also classifies GHB as a Schedule II drug and classifies "nexus" (4-bromo-2,5-dimethoxy-phenethylamine) as a Schedule I drug. The governor is expected to sign the legislation.

Federal legislation targeting Rohypnol® was signed on October 13, 1996, which makes it a crime to give a controlled substance to a person without their knowledge with the intent of committing a violent crime (21 U.S.C. 841(b)(7); "Clinton Signs Legislation Increasing Penalties for Methamphetamine and Rohypnol®," NewsBriefs, November 1996).

Because it is difficult to distinguish a rave from other types of parties in legal terms, Florida legislators focused on the places in which raves are now held. Recently, the legislature passed a bill that bans nightclub and bar ownrs from renting or operating their establishment during hours when liquor sales are not permitted. The legislature is considering a bill that would prohibit nightclubs and bars from staying open past 2:00 a.m. The bill is modeled on an ordinance passed by Tampa last year. Violations of these new laws are misdemeanors and violators could lose their liquor license. Opponents of these measures say that the new laws will only prompt raves to be held outside or in establishments without liquor licenses.

Many club owners, even those who don't hold raves, oppose such laws. "A big part of the dance club attraction is how late we stay open,'' said John Gardner, owner of Barberella, a downtown club in Orlando. "Staying open allows our customers extra time to sober up on our dance floor.'' Club owners said they do not tolerate drug use and have worked with police to combat it. However, Jon Marsa, owner of the Club of Firestone in downtown Orlando, said, "Any nightclub owner on this planet that tells you drugs are absent from his club is lying."

The Mayor of Orlando has appointed a rave review task force to learn more about the issues surrounding raves and drug use in the city, according to Tanya Doug, a member of the task force and liaison to City Commissioner Betty Wyman. The task force, upon completion of its report, will present recommendations to the City Council.

For information regarding the Orlando "rave" task force, contact Lieutenant Joe Robinson in the Mayor's Office - (407) 246-2221.