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Ecstasy Law Does More Harm Than Good, One Researcher Argues

People listening to music at a rave.
The club drug Ecstasy is often taken by people going to nightclubs or attending raves. (Image credit: <a href="">Steve Mann</a>, <a href="">Shutterstock</a>)

SAN FRANCISCO — A law designed to deter the use of party drugs, such as ecstasy, at raves and other dance parties may cause more harm than good, one researcher argues.

A 2003 federal law allows club promoters and event organizers to be prosecuted if they could have reasonably foreseen that patrons would be doing drugs at their events. Therefore, steps to protect people's safety — such as providing medics, handing out water bottles or testing drugs for safety — can all put party promoters in legal jeopardy, said study researcher Tammy L. Anderson, a sociologist at the University of Delaware.

"It puts them in an impossible position of protecting their clientele while abiding by the provisions of the act," Anderson said here at the 109th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. [Trippy Tales: The History of 8 Hallucinogens]

Raves and drugs

Called the Federal Reducing Americans' Vulnerability to Ecstasy (RAVE) Act and sponsored by then-Sen. Joseph Biden, the 2003 law targets those who organize big raves and dance parties such as Electric Daisy Carnival.

But the law has actually made these events less safe, Anderson argued. So far, 15 people have died at techno-music festivals in the United States this year, according to Billboard.

Drugs made of 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine (MDMA), such as ecstasy and its allegedly purer counterpart Molly, are popular at all-night dance parties like raves. The most dangerous side effects of these drugs are related to the risk of overheating; the drugs elevate people's core body to dangerously high temperatures, and that effect is only worsened when someone stays up all night dancing at a hot, crowded venue without drinking water, Anderson said.

For instance, two people died this year at Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas.

"Their temperatures were like 106 or 107 degrees [Fahrenheit] (41 to 42 degrees Celsius). They basically burned up," Anderson told Live Science. Others may overhydrate to compensate, and they "essentially drown themselves," she said.

Safety measures

Before the law passed, music festivals offered water and had more medics at the events. Independent groups, like DanceSafe, would set up booths to test people's drugs for adulterants and give tips on how to enjoy the parties safely.

But most promoters stopped taking these precautions once the RAVE Act passed, because by the law's logic, "if the promoter — like Electric Daisy Carnival — provides water, it's an indication that they must know that drug use is going to happen at their event, because they're trying to hydrate their clientele who get dehydrated from dancing on Molly or ecstasy," Anderson said.

This year, to try to combat the rise in deaths at electric music festivals, the New York music festival Electric Zoo will bring drug-sniffing dogs and will make festivalgoers watch an anti-drug public service announcement. But given that hundreds of thousands of people may attend these festivals every year, it's unrealistic to expect promoters to prevent all drug use, Anderson said.

Improving safety

To improve safety, the law needs to be repealed or revised, Anderson said.

In addition, festival promoters should make thoroughfares through the crowds so that medics can more easily reach those showing signs of severe illness, Anderson said. To reduce overheating issues, promoters could hold their parties during cooler times of the day or year, and do a better job of cordoning off areas that serve alcohol (alcohol can worsen dehydration), she said.

The promoters should also do a better job of teaching people the warning signs of dangerous dehydration and overheating associated with ecstasy use, such as vomiting a frothy, white liquid, she said.

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Tia Ghose
Tia Ghose

Tia is the managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.