Will a Rave Ban at the Cow Palace Make Things Worse?

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After one person died from a drug overdose and nine others were hospitalized following Pop 2010: The Dream on Saturday at the Cow Palace, a police official and San Mateo county supervisor are calling for a ban on raves at the venue, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. But it’s questionable whether a ban on such events would prevent such deaths from happening in the future; in fact, it could make the problem worse.

The Chronicle initially reported that the victim, twenty-year-old Anthony Mata of Santa Clara, was likely given a “tainted” drug. "Obviously someone was either giving away or selling drugs that were laced with something that caused a number of kids to be taken to the hospital," said Eileen Shields, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco Department of Public Health. Doctors and police backed that up, saying that all the patients exhibited “life-threatening symptoms such as internal bleeding and kidney failure” that was inconsistent with an ecstasy overdose. According to the article, more than 800 ecstasy tabs were confiscated during the event, along with LSD and methamphetamine.

Skills DJ Workshop founder Jason Sperling, aka Dyloot.
  • Skills DJ Workshop founder Jason Sperling, aka Dyloot.

But then it turned out that there was no evidence that Mata and others were the victims of tainted drugs, and that they had likely overdosed. And at least two of the sickened concertgoers said they bought their drugs outside of the event, according to a report on KTVU. Still, San Mateo County Supervisor Adrienne Tissier called the event a "public safety nightmare” and noted that there were two fatal overdoses at the Cow Palace in 2003 (at an event thrown by promoter Coolworld). Even Governor Schwarzenegger got involved, calling for a review of the Cow Palace’s policies, because the venue is run by the state Department of Food and Agriculture.

The event’s organizer, the Oakland-based promotion company Skills DJ Workshop, took several steps to prevent drug use and to police the situation. Indeed, in contrast to underground rave promoters, Skills stages its events aboveground in order to be totally legit and safe. The promoter says it cooperated fully with law enforcement by working with local police and venue officials on security. According to a statement on the company’s web site, Skills welcomed undercover officers into the event to arrest individuals and test their own security measures. Attendees were also reminded leading up to the event and as they entered (with fliers) that San Mateo County has “zero tolerance for the possession and/or distribution of illegal substances.” As a result, more than sixty “problem guests” (out of 16,000 sold tickets) were apprehended by undercover officers.

Skills also hired its own emergency medical technicians to supplement what is normally required, said Skills spokeswoman Alexis Smith. They’re the same team that’s present at Burning Man, she said. Smith said Skills co-founder Jason Sperling, who performs under the stage name of Dyloot, is not doing interviews until the investigation is completed. But in a prepared statement released today, Sperling said, “Electronic music has a large and growing fan base that is not unlike those of other music genres. Any ban on this specific category of musical performance would represent a major loss to the cultural vibrancy of the Bay Area.”

Banning raves at the Cow Palace could push such events underground, where regulations aren’t as strict or don’t exist. “I think that moving electronic music events underground actually does push problems under the rug,” DanceSafe President Nathan Messer wrote in an e-mail. “The best way to avoid medical emergencies like overdoses and heat exhaustion is by having medics on site and encouraging cool-down tactics like free water near the crowds and chill rooms. A venue as large as the Cow Palace can have medical staff present — particularly when a large crowd is expected — to address any potential problems. But pushing an event underground, away from medics, and potentially discouraging people from calling for help when someone needs it, could make the problem worse. Underground venues tend to have no medical staff, unreliable access to drinking water or air conditioning, and lack fire-safety protections. We’d rather have problems happen where we can see them and respond.”

It’s not as if overdoses (or alcohol poisoning, for that matter) don’t occur at smaller club or warehouse events. It’s just that the media doesn’t usually report them. And hoping that people will completely stop doing drugs or taking too many isn’t realistic, which is why some in the community focus on education.

“Our community doesn't support the use or abuse of illegal substances,” wrote Guiv Naimi of SF-based promotion company Spundae Productions, in an e-mail. “But as everybody knows, people are exposed to them everywhere, walking down the streets, in schools, at work, at the gym. The only way to stop this is at its source — the drug dealers — and by educating people to make the right choice and stay away from them.”

Members of DanceSafe show up at events to educate people on how to take drugs safely and responsibly. DanceSafe also provides testing for street drugs (although the Oakland chapter is currently inactive, according to Messer). EcstasyData.org also tests street-sold ecstasy and provides results on its web site. The goal is to reduce overdoses and make dance events safer.

“I don't think that condemning all-ages dance events at the Cow Palace will make any real difference in the number of kids using drugs, or even of hospitalizations due to drug use, it just wouldn't be happening where public health officials have any presence,” agreed DanceSafe’s Messer. “This, to me, shows the need for on-site harm reduction education, pill-testing, free cold water for attendees, and encouragement of chill-out rooms for people to cool down.”

Ironically, a federal law that increased punishment for ecstasy use and those who hold events where ecstasy is used has made it harder for promoters to find venues, according to a local DJ who wanted to remain anonymous. According to the source, it also has scared DJs and promoters from inviting educational groups such as DanceSafe at their events, because some view it as admitting to drug use.

The Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act passed in 2003 as an attachment to the Amber Alert Bill. Formerly known as the RAVE (Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy) Act, sponsored by Joe Biden, it authorized funding for education on the dangers of ecstasy and other drugs, and said that anyone who knowingly opens, leases, rents or maintains any place for the purpose of using, distributing or manufacturing a controlled substance, can be held accountable. Similar acts, such as the Clean-Up Act and the Ecstasy Awareness Act, however, failed to pass.

But with or without the Cow Palace ban, many in the dance community are worried about what implications the incident could have on the scene. As some in the forums on BayRaves.com have noted, this incident may only make it more difficult for promoters and fans. “Man ... you guys have no idea the shit storm that is about to come down on our scene,” wrote user proxy.

Meanwhile, it’s unclear how feasible it would be to even ban dance events at the Cow Palace. According to the Chron, Cow Palace CEO Joe Barkett said the venue makes about $75,000 on an event the size of POP2010. That’s money the Cow Palace probably doesn’t want to lose. How that compares to other events at the venue is unclear, however, and Barkett did not respond to a phone call.

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