When Dancing is Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Dance
Ellen Komp, AlterNet
June 27, 2000
In the movie "Footloose," a group of town elders tried to keep dancing
illegal, leading to a revolt by the youth of the town. This seemingly
absurd plot is being played out today in the U.S. In recent weeks, a
crackdown has begun on "raves"all night dance parties where some
participants are taking drugs like MDMA (3-4
methylenedioxymethamphetamine), aka ecstasy.
Dance clubs and parties are being shut down or are encountering serious
scrutiny. Attendees are having their crotches and bras searched for drugs
upon entering, and search lights have been used to scan crowds for drug
takers. It's gotten so absurd that the state of Florida has illegalized
glow sticks because they are favored by ravers. Students who wear plastic
jewelry, supposedly a marker for drug use, are being pulled out of class
and having their parents alerted by school authorities.
What's all the fuss about?
Raving is really nothing new. It has a lot in common with rites such as the
Eleusinian mysteries, the ancient Greek communal festivals involving the
mysterious drug Soma. It also mimics Dionysian festivals, the American
Indian long dance, Buddhist chanting, revivalist meetings, sports events,
Grateful Dead concerts and the disco craze. In each of these experiences,
participants lose themselves to a collective entity in a common ecstatic
experience that bonds them together.
Most primitive cultures used some form of psychotropic substance in
adolescent initiation rites, but our Judeo-Christian sensibility, morphed
into Puritan "thou-shalt-not" ism, forbids it. However, repression hasn't
stopped adolescents from craving the drug-induced vision quest that has
traditionally been a doorway to adulthood. The fact that this behavior is
deemed illegal and immoral means adults aren't around to provide any
guidance or moderating influence to their children who reject the
simplistic "just say no" message.
The jury is still out over how harmful occasional MDMA use is, especially
compared with other drugs. But our government's enforcement-heavy response
probably won't have much effect on its use, and almost certainly will
increase its harmful effects.
The relatively few problems seen at raves have occurred largely due to
heatstroke and dehydration fostered by unlicensed, overcrowded venues
without adequate ventilation or drinking water. Tablets sold as "ecstasy"
containing a range of other drugs are especially problematic, and
impossible to control due to an unregulated, increasingly lucrative
With the exception of San Francisco, which is working on ordinances
requiring clubs to provide water and safety information at raves, our
public health departments have taken no action to promote safety at raves.
Instead, Congress is introducing bills to ratchet up sentencing for crimes
involving MDMA (since that tactic has worked so well in the past). One
alarming bill would even make it illegal to post information about the drug
on the internet, putting in peril not only the first amendment, but also
any organization distributing harm reduction information about MDMA.
One such group is Dancesafe, a rapidly growing organization of volunteer
peer educators that has stepped in where our institutions have failed,
handing out information about heatstroke, research studies, side effects
and after effects at raves across the country. The group also tests pills
to see if they contain MDMA or other drugs, a function which arguably
should be handled by our Food and Drug Administration.
England's Police Association and Switzerland's highest court have
recommended MDMA be treated as a "soft" drug like cannabis, as did the U.S.
administrative law judge who reviewed the evidence in 1986. An inquest jury
in Toronto investigating the tragic death of Allen Ho, 21, at a rave
determined that the venue was unsafe and recommended city permitting of
rave sites and the establishment of safety protocols, including the
dissemination of safety information. But such reasonable measures seem to
have little place in the U.S. drug war, which has increasingly been
described as a near-religious "crusade."
When will the U.S. begin to see drug use as a health and social issue,
instead of abdicating responsibility to law enforcement and its
heavy-handed tactics? When will we come to grips with mankind's history of
drug use, and stop our increasingly harmful attempts to stamp out those
drugs we have arbitrarily deemed illicit? When will we examine what is
inherently unhealthy and hypocritical about our alcohol-swigging,
nicotine-sucking, Prozac-popping culture, which likes to criminalize and
harass its young, even for something as harmless as dancing?
Neitzsche said, "I could not believe in a god that does not dance." In our
Puritanical attempts to become "drug free," we may end up with a society
that no longer knows how.
Ellen Komp is a program associate at The Lindesmith Center-San Francisco
and a member of the San Francisco Rave/Club Drug Task Force.
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