Law threatens free speech, free assembly, critics say
Plain Dealer Bureau
Washington- Shawn Carson says he understands why Congress wants to crack down on people who get rich by wooing kids to concerts where drugs are rampant.
But he isn't one of those people, the Cleveland music promoter says. So, he can't understand why he should have to worry about getting hit with jail time, or a huge civil fine, if a federal agent some day came to a concert and "caught one person in a back hallway or a bathroom with a little bit of some kind of drug."
That, he says, is precisely what he fears could happen under a change in an anti-drug law that Congress quietly slipped into another bill several months ago. The change makes it easier to prosecute people involved in arranging one-time events, such as concerts, where drugs are used.
The change, critics warn, could not only throw innocent promoters in jail, but also scare off property owners from renting out halls, clubs and fields for any event - from concerts to political rallies - where someone might use an illegal drug. That, they say, could violate Americans' rights to free speech and free assembly.
"The law is so wide open that it could shut down anything, like a Rolling Stones concert, a hip-hop show, any kind of show," says Alex Virasayachack, a Cleveland promoter and disc jockey.
"It's a pretty Draconian thing," says Marvin Johnson, a counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "Owners and promoters can go to jail for something that they have no control over."
Johnson and other critics point to the cancellation of a concert in Montana as proof their fears are valid.
The Drug Enforcement Administration has acknowledged that an Eagles Lodge in Billings canceled a May 30 concert scheduled on its property after a DEA agent showed up that day with a copy of the new law and suggested the lodge could be held liable if concertgoers used drugs. The concert was a money-raiser for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Ed Childress, a DEA spokesman in Washington, said the incident appears to have resulted from a misinterpretation of the law by the local DEA agent.
"From what I understand this was going to be a lawful event at the Eagles Lodge that could result in some of the patrons using drugs," said Childress. "We've never intentionally gone after innocent owners of property."
The agency has since issued guidelines, Childress said, to clarify that people will not be prosecuted just because someone uses drugs at an event.
Prosecutions will be aimed, he said, at people holding events "for the intended purpose of promoting" drug use or sales. The agency also has directed agents to coordinate any enforcement of the law with headquarters, he said.
"I really don't think legitimate owners of these facilities have anything to worry about," he said. "It's not like an agent can just run out there and break up a concert on his own."
The real targets of the law, he said, are people who promote electronic-music dance parties known as "raves" in a way that makes clear that drugs like Ecstasy will be available.
The main sponsor of the law, Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, also has tried to calm fears about how it will be applied. Chip Unruh, a spokesman for Biden, called the new law a modest expansion of a 1986 "crack house law" that allowed the government to prosecute landlords who knowingly rent property to people who use it for illegal drug activity.
The expanded law, which President Bush signed April 30 as part of the Amber Alert bill, for the first time explicitly allows similar prosecutions in cases of outdoor events and one-time events. People convicted under the law could go to prison and face civil fines of up to 0,000 or twice the gross receipts from an event.
Unruh said the changes in the law were carefully worded to make sure innocent event promoters and property owners won't be held responsible merely "if someone smokes a joint at a concert."
"You have to knowingly and intentionally hold an event for the purpose of drug distribution," said Unruh. "He [Biden] set the bar incredibly high."
Unruh said Biden was concerned about the Billings incident but is "very pleased" with the DEA's response to it. He cited a letter the agency sent to Biden last month spelling out that promoters and property owners "would not be violating the act . . . just because of illegal patron behavior."
Some critics of the law say they, too, are encouraged by the agency's assurances - but only somewhat. Bill Piper, associate director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said the government guidelines are "a good start," but he still fears innocent people could be prosecuted unless Congress amends the law.
"They [DEA] can change the guidelines at any moment," Piper said.
Even some people in the music business who are optimistic the law won't end up hurting them confess to some anxiety. Cindy Barber, co-owner of the Beachland Ballroom and Tavern in Cleveland, says she guesses she will be fine because she has worked hard to prevent illegal behavior and to build a good relationship with police.
"When you're dealing with 400 people in a building at any one time, it's hard to be everywhere," she says. "There's always a fear that if somebody has a gripe against you . . . they could figure out some way to plant something if they really wanted to get you."
Defenders of the law say they think the best approach is to see how the law is enforced before trying to change it.
"Common sense would hold that we're not going to see people going after legitimate promoters and property owners," says Howard Simon, spokesman for Partnership for a Drug-Free America.
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© 2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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