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New Law Assists Political Intimidation | The Nation

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New Law Assists Political Intimidation

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Drug reformers and concert promoters united a year ago to block passage of Democratic Senator Joe Biden's Rave Act, which would have subjected promoters and club owners to prohibitive fines for any but the most incidental drug use at their events. This year, though, Biden--who said the law was needed to deter drug use and "protect kids"--attached it to the anti-child abduction AMBER Alert bill, which passed in April.

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Daniel Forbes
Daniel Forbes (ddanforbes@aol.com) writes on social policy and has testified before both the US Senate and the House...

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House Republicans anticipated smooth sailing for legislation to reauthorize the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

It took about a month for reformers' fears to be realized. Emphasizing the possible $250,000 fine, a DEA agent brandished a copy of the law at a fraternal lodge in Billings, Montana, that was about to host a benefit concert to raise money to help qualify a medical-marijuana measure for the state ballot next year, and the event was immediately canceled.

Denver-based Special Agent in Charge Jeff Sweetin, who runs the DEA's Rocky Mountain Division, said the lodge trustees may not have known what they were in for because typically such events feature "open air" drug use. It's the DEA's duty to inform them, he said, so they can beef up security. "The emphasis was, there were a lot of people coming, and they need to be prepared," said Sweetin.

Kelly (who declined to give her last name) was the manager on duty at the Fraternal Order of Eagles Lodge when agent Dan Dunlap showed up on May 30, several hours before the $5 event, proceeds from which were to go to local chapters of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and Students for a Sensible Drug Policy as well as the medical-marijuana ballot fight. Kelly said Dunlap made no overt threats but showed her a copy of the new Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act and informed her that should any drugs be found on the premises, the lodge might be subject to the $250,000 penalty. He didn't tell the lodge to cancel the event, but just indicated, Kelly said, "what could happen." Dunlap also told her that undercover DEA agents or some in "squad cars" might attend. She called her boss.

Lodge chairman Roger Diehl confirmed his meeting with Dunlap, but declined comment beyond saying it was his decision to cancel the event.

Sweetin acknowledged that Dunlap mentioned the quarter-million-dollar fine as "one possible ramification of the law." He said, "If they chose to have the concert, we told them what could happen." Asked about the fine, Sweetin said, "There is a liability attached if you don't control your patrons." Sweetin maintained that the DEA is duty-bound to inform the public about the new law while noting, "It's pretty broad. It's a very aggressive approach to drug users and people who profit from drug use at events." He added that the DEA is still seeking guidance from the Department of Justice. "We don't know how it's going to shake out."

Had the lodge lacked proper security, said Sweetin, "It can turn into Ecstasy use and marijuana use, and people could have gotten hurt." His worst fear, he said, is having "to talk to the mother of some girl who was doped or raped or killed." He added that the DEA actions are likely to be presented as "the bad narcs trying to stop a fundraiser, but no, that's not the case."

Scott Proctor, the interim coordinator for the Montana State Green Party, says that while there might have been some potheads skulking around the parking lot if the concert had taken place, there would not have been any open pot smoking. "You'd get nailed for that in Billings. It's a very conservative town," he said.

Rather than curtailing political speech, Biden staffer Chip Unruh said, the law "targets people who knowingly and intentionally promote an event for the purpose of drug use, sales or manufacturing. The law is very clear and there's a high burden of proof." Paradoxically, Unruh said, "I can't think of too many instances where someone knowingly promoted an event for the purpose of drug use. That would be stupid--just another form of dealing drugs."

Bill Piper, associate director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, said the incident--not to mention Unruh's statement--proves opponents' contention that the law would be used as a form of intimidation. Existing laws, he contended, adequately cover drug dealing by concert promoters.

Had the concert come off, organizer Adam Jones, a 21-year-old Montana State student and founder of the local NORML and SSDP chapters, would have skipped it despite his months of preparation. He was locked up for three days for failing to inform his probation officer that he'd switched from his winter to his summer YMCA job, and for a urinalysis described by Pam Bunke, regional administrator for Montana's Department of Corrections, as "borderline hot" for marijuana. Having not checked with Jones's job since January, probation officer Barry Ivanoff did so the day before the concert. Asked whether this was coincidental, Bunke said, "Coincidence--sure." Bunke said that Jones came to the authorities' attention for his April 2001 felony possession of 3.7 grams of psychoactive mushrooms. Then a May 2002 search of his home turned up a baggie with some mushroom residue and, said Bunke, a "bottle of liquid spores"

Bunke said the state crime lab would do a more extensive analysis of Jones's urine, and should it determine Jones had used marijuana, Jones's probation could conceivably be revoked, and he could do up to two years in prison, though a lesser penalty is likely.

The Green Party's Proctor declared Jones a great organizer who has "done more at age 21 than a lot of people do their whole lives." But more politics will have to wait. With his probation officer riding herd--and facing that urinalysis result--Jones said he's resigned his posts because "There's a real conflict of interest for me to be involved with reform organizations right now." This despite what he views as "a scary and complete infringement of my First Amendment rights."

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