Raver Madness

Scare tactics, uniformed soldiers, clueless social workers, and a compliant Miami Herald

A camouflage-clad National Guardmember pokes his head into Kulchur's car window. “Are you here for the special event?” he asks gruffly. I'm here for the drug-free rave apparently is the correct password. The guardsman motions to drive on to a parking spot past his hulking military truck outside Coconut Grove's Peacock Park. There a half-dozen tents and a DJ booth have been erected under the auspices of the Miami Coalition for a Safe and Drug-Free Community, which hopes to “unmask the risks and realities of the rave scene.” The Miami Coalition has been casting about for a galvanizing issue; it's hard to demand zero tolerance in an era in which both the sitting president and at least one major presidential candidate have admitted to experimenting with drugs without irrevocably destroying their lives. Still, with the media working itself into a frenzy over raves, the group finally seems to have found a sure thing.

And so coalition staffers were hoping for hundreds of concerned parents to arrive with their children in tow. The actual turnout on the evening of October 28, however, ends up being little more than a handful of moms and a dozen teenagers bused over from their drug-rehab center. The teens stand around looking bored, occasionally springing to life when a TV camera approaches. A DJ spins a set of bubbly breaks. Stacks of literature sit untouched next to a large boxful of Twizzlers licorice and Skittles cryptically marked RAVE CANDY.

Inside one tent, which features the federal Drug Enforcement Administration insignia on its flap, the Miami Coalition's director of communications, Bernie Diaz, remains unruffled by the sparse audience. Since the National Guard is used as part of the government's anti-drug strategy in schools, and as Guardmembers have finished the grunt work of setting up these tents, why not educate them?

Careful with those glow sticks, son; they're deadly drug paraphernalia
Brett Sokol
Careful with those glow sticks, son; they're deadly drug paraphernalia


As one guardsman listens intently, Diaz launches into performance mode, motioning to a table strewn with glossy rave-party flyers and what he terms “dangerous” rave paraphernalia: pacifiers, Charm's Blow Pops, and Vicks VapoRub. He's in the middle of vividly relating how Ecstasy-addled ravers are transfixed by the “glassy effects” of glow sticks when the guardsman interrupts, pointing to a glovelike ball-studded object on the table: “What's with the brass knuckles?”

“Ahh,” Diaz purrs with a knowing smile. “This is a massager,” he explains, rolling the suspect device back and forth on the soldier's arm. “It heightens the sensual effects of Ecstasy. Total strangers massage each other, which leads to sexual contact.” He pauses for effect and adds, “They'll do anything with anybody!”

Diaz moves on to a bottle of Robitussin, describing how thousands of kids are now chugging entire bottles of cough syrup when they're short the $25 needed for a hit of Ecstasy. “It has MDA in it,” he says -- falsely -- as a woman looks on with a horrified expression. He taps the bottle's label: “See, cherry flavor. It tastes like candy. They like that.”

And just where is Diaz getting this insider information on the hordes of Robitussin-swilling ravers? “Oh, we've done studies; there's lots of anecdotal evidence,” he answers confidently. “We've got an epidemiologist right outside you can talk to.” As Diaz's eyes begin burning with the light of a true believer, Kulchur carefully backs out of the tent and heads for the rave candy.

Scare tactics, uniformed soldiers, clueless social workers -- hasn't anything changed since the failed “Just Say No” drug-policy tactics of the Eighties? Actually times have changed, just not in Miami. That was the message at the Third Annual Harm Reduction Conference as 1100 physicians, health professionals, teachers, scientists, and community activists from around the nation gathered at downtown Miami's Wyndham Hotel from October 22 to October 25.

Their shared philosophy is a pragmatic rejection of what conference organizers term the “prohibitionist-abstentionist” model: We may not like the idea of teens (or even premarital couples) having sex, but instead of simply preaching abstention, we're also going to make condoms available. We may not approve of people shooting heroin, but rather than let the use of dirty needles continue to spread AIDS, we're going to set up clean-needle exchange programs.

Back in the Nancy Reagan days, such a conference would have been unthinkable. Prominent members of the medical and scientific establishment were too intimidated by the threat of losing grant money, or of being publicly stigmatized, to challenge the official orthodoxy of the drug war. No more.

The conference's four days featured freewheeling and open discussion of a number of responses to both drug abuse and the AIDS epidemic. Drawing special attention were the members present from Dancesafe, a self-described “nonprofit harm-reduction organization promoting health and safety within the rave and nightclub community,” whose headquarters are in Oakland, California.

One of Dancesafe's main activities has been the onsite testing of Ecstasy at raves around the nation. By using a chemical reagent, Dancesafe members can quickly determine if the pills in question truly contain MDMA (actual Ecstasy) or are fakes filled with potentially lethal (and more easily obtainable) adulterants such as DXM or PMA. Fake Ecstasy is rapidly spreading as dealers attempt to cash in on the real drug's popularity; indeed toxicology reports confirm that most of the fatalities attributed to Ecstasy overdoses were in fact the result of PMA (a legal stimulant that can cause seizures or cardiac arrest in high doses) or DXM (found in cough suppressants and a potential cause of heat stroke in high doses).

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