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Adventures in the Rave Trade

A Report on the "L.A. Rave" conference
held by the California Association of Toxicologists on May 5, 2000


Richard Glen Boire, J.D.
Director, CCLE

On May 5-6, 2000, the California Association of Toxicologists held a conference in North Hollywood, California, the first day of which was devoted to drugs that are commonly found at raves. I attended this conference for the purpose of getting an inside briefing on how law enforcement views raves and so-called "club drugs" such as MDMA, GHB and ketamine. (1)

My summary of the event is limited to describing the talks that were focused on law enforcement rather than the science and pharmacology of the various drugs. (2) I will begin by describing the atmosphere of the seminar, then summarize the talks, and conclude with some comments on how alternative drug policy groups and drug defense attorneys might want to approach interactions with the toxicology community.

Many toxicologists, and certainly the vast majority of those who attended this conference, work in government laboratories analyzing the drugs that are seized by police, as well as the urine and other body fluids extracted from arrestees. They identify the seized drugs, and testify in court as to the drug’s identity and pharmacological effects. In manufacturing cases, they examine seized chemicals and equipment and testify in court about whether the laboratory was producing illicit drugs. With respect to this conference, the issues were concentrated on MDMA, GHB, and GHB precursors, and to a lesser extent ketamine, and LSD.

Registration for the conference was $70, an amount that was required to be tendered in cash, which seemed odd and slightly illicit. In exchange for the money, I received a conference folder that contained printouts of the speakers’ PowerPoint lecture aids, and a RingPop® —a candy popsicle molded in the shape of a pacifier. It was the first hint that maybe this wasn’t going to be as uptight and cop-minded as I had suspected.

Inside the hotel ballroom, which was filled with enough tables and chairs to accommodate 130 people, I surveyed the demographics of the attendees, noting that they were nearly all white, and virtually none of them were under the age of 40. Approximately 80 percent were men. Surveying their nametags, which included their employers, I saw that the attendees were a mix of toxicologists, prosecutors, and law enforcement agents. I searched but never found a single defense attorney.

Ringing the perimeter of the room were 11 vendor tables with professionally designed displays and eager sales representatives standing near them. Most of the vendors were companies selling sophisticated drug detection equipment for use by professional toxicologists. Equipment such as gas chromatographs, urinalysis instruments, and paraphernalia for collecting, testing, and disposing of urine, sweat, oral fluid and other "forensic specimens." Most of the vendors offered games and prizes. Varian, Inc., a company that sells an array of drug analysis products, offered a "Varian/chrompack capillary column!" to attendees who could "identify [a] drug by its electron impact spectra and chemical ionization spectra." Likewise, Anysys Diagnostics showed several colorful chromatograph pictures inviting attendees to "Name that drug! Win highlighters, rulers and mugs." And Artel, Inc, of Portland, Maine, offered a $100 L.L. Bean gift certificate or a lobster dinner for two, to the toxicologist who could most accurately and quickly pipette 20µL samples of fluid. The attendees showed little enthusiasm for this mini-carnival.

After some opening remarks by the conference organizers (who worked for the Los Angeles County Coroner and Crime Lab, the first session "Supplement Time Bombs: Analogs of GHB and Precursor Steroids" began. While my report focuses only on the law-enforcement and policy sessions of the seminar, I will note that it was very clear from the first session (and confirmed in those to follow), that both state and federal law enforcement agencies are very much aware of the variety of GHB precursors that are currently available with a little searching, specifically (GBL) and 1,4 Butanediol (BD).

According to the speaker, Alfred J. Quattrone, Ph.D., from the California Department of Health Services, Food and Drug Branch, GBL and BD have exploded in popularity in the last three years. He reported that by January 1999 there had been between 150-200 reported cases of "CNS poisonings" by people who had ingested between 1-2 grams of GBL or BD. He said that both GBL and BD were listed in California as dangerous drugs of abuse and that possession or manufacture of either was a felony. It was clear that Dr. Quattrone considered any use of GHB or GHB precursors to be not only abuse, but also a criminal act. He did note, however, that the government "can’t regulate them out of existence." Key to limiting abuse, he said, was getting "well-documented educational information to young people who should know better." He mentioned that GBL and BD, as well as other new GHB precursors, such as GHV, could be purchased by kids via web sites.

The next speaker was Michael Braun, Assistant Special Agent in charge of the Los Angeles office of the DEA. The title of his talk was "The Responsibilities of the DEA in Regards to Rave Parties."

Agent Braun fits the part of a stereotypical DEA agent who has risen to a management position. He’s large, appears very fit, and speaks with military phrasing. Agent Braun explained that there were 100 agents under his command, and that he had agreed to speak at the seminar because one of the organizers promised to buy him a beer. (Later in the day, another speaker also mentioned that the same drug deal was his impetus for coming to speak.) Overall, Agent Braun did not seem to be a bad guy—a jock with a mission he believes in, but clearly a man with some self-control and decency.

Agent Braun explained that MDMA was "causing law enforcement big problems" and said he’d "bet his paycheck" that the problem was going to get much worse in the next year or so. At one point in his talk he said "from the law enforcement side, MDMA, is the biggest threat that [the DEA has] ever faced." I found this hard to believe in comparison to cocaine and methamphetamine.

Agent Braun told the attendees that the profit potential for manufacturers and dealers of MDMA was "off the chart." Most MDMA, he said, was manufactured in the Netherlands or Germany for about fifty cents per dose and sold to European wholesalers for $2 a dose. He explained that most of the ingredients used by the European MDMA labs were probably purchased in China and India—countries in which the precursors are uncontrolled. The European wholesalers then sell it to U.S. wholesalers for approximately $8 per dose, and U.S. users eventually pay anywhere from $10-$40 per dose. He explained that in 1999, the number of MDMA doses seized worldwide was over 9 million, with 4 million of these doses seized in the U.S. He predicted that MDMA seizures for the year 2000 would far surpass those from 1999.

According to Agent Braun, manufacturing MDMA is an easy process but because all the required ingredients are tightly controlled in the U.S., very little MDMA is actually manufactured here. He reported that the largest MDMA lab bust in the U.S. occurred in Boston in 1998. That lab, he said, contained approximately 20 pounds of MDMA while most domestic manufactures of MDMA only manufacture a few ounces at a time.

Agent Braun said that most MDMA is smuggled into the United States via New York, Los Angeles, or Miami. He said that a first-time offender who is caught with 10 kilos of MDMA faces a maximum of 5-6 years in federal prison. He contrasted this to a first-time offender caught with the same amount of methamphetamine who, he said, faces 20-25 years. He said that the DEA was working to get this changed, because the potential punishment of six years was too low to dissuade potential MDMA importers who were currently "making millions of dollars." He said that the DEA had intercepted air freight packages of MDMA in the 20-25 kilo range, and that a great deal of MDMA was also coming into the U.S. via express mail services such as FedEx, DHL, and UPS. He said that the DEA was working with all these groups to detect packages that might contain MDMA. Lastly, he noted that some MDMA reaches the United States via couriers who hand carry it into the U.S. in their luggage.

Agent Braun said that the world’s MDMA market was tightly controlled by Israeli organized crime, which employs state of the art, extremely expensive, communications and encryption equipment, as well as sophisticated surveillance and counter-surveillance measures to run its operation. Agent Braun said that the latest DEA intelligence indicated that within 3-5 years most MDMA used in the U.S. would no longer be made in Europe and would not be controlled by Israeli organized crime. Instead, he predicted that Mexican organized crime was poised to enter the MDMA market, undercut the prices of the European manufacturers, and "flood the market with low-cost pills."

During the public Q/A session I asked Agent Braun whether the DEA considered the kids who are using MDMA at raves to be criminals and whether the DEA was targeting raves as sites for arrests. He said that despite the title of his talk, "the DEA does not have a role with respect to rave parties. We don’t go after those kids, we don’t target them. We’re mandated by Congress to work at a much higher level." He said that law enforcement was only one part of the government’s war on drugs and that "prevention, education and treatment" also play important roles.

The next law enforcement speaker was Anthony Shapiro an undercover L.A. County Sheriff’s narcotics detective—commonly called a "narc." The title of his talk was "The Role of a Narcotic Detective in Los Angeles County." Detective Shapiro came across as a decent guy who is focused on the specifics of each of his operations and who hasn’t spent much, if any, time thinking about larger policy issues.

While much of his talk was interesting stories of his undercover capers and of his career path, he did say that in the last few years he has been going to raves, not to arrest users of MDMA, but to arrest sellers and higher-up distributors. With respect to MDMA, he said that his principle "informants" –people who don’t realize he’s an undercover narcotics detective and talk to him about where to get MDMA—are 18-20 year old kids that he befriends at raves. Agent Shapiro said that he doesn’t make any arrests at raves, explaining that it was too risky with all the people around and would also blow his cover. His technique is to try and pinpoint the seller, get the seller’s pager number and then later try and arrange a buy. When I again asked him about this later, he repeated that he does not arrest users at raves.

He described people on MDMA as losing all sexual inhibitions and "want[ing] to get naked with four people." He seemed to equate and confuse MDMA’s empathogenic effects and the caring behavior that it tends to elicit, with increased sexual desire.

In an attempt to learn more about how undercover officers view raves and people who use MDMA, I sat next to Agent Shapiro during the hour-long lunch break. I asked Agent Shapiro whether he thought that MDMA was so bad that its users should be made criminals. I was surprised with Agent Shapiro’s response. Although he has worked as an undercover narcotics agent for 17 years, he reacted to my question with a genuine blank look and replied: "Hmm. I’ve never thought about that." He then began thinking outloud, noting that the problems with MDMA use were that the drug is often adulterated or completely bogus, that organized crime is involved in the MDMA trade, and that the underground laboratories that produce it in the U.S. pose a danger to surrounding neighbors. I pointed out that decriminalizing MDMA would do away with, or severely reduce all the negative conditions he mentioned (and several others), he gave me an ambiguous facial gesture that seemed to indicate that talking about drug policy issues bored him.

A few minutes later Earth from erowid.org sat down at the same table and together we interjected alternative drug policy views into the discussion. It quickly became clear to me that most of the other people at the table were open-minded about alternatives to MDMA prohibition, and even seemed to question the overall logic of a "just say no" drug war. Several shook their heads in agreement when I commented that speaker Trinka Porrata was extremely condescending and grossly simplistic in her tirade against baggy pants and teenage girls with butterflies in their hair. (3)

The final presentation centered on law enforcement issues was titled "The Prosecution of Rave Parties and Drug Facilitated Rape," and was delivered by two deputy district attorneys. The entire presentation, however, was aimed at toxicologists who process evidence seized in drug-facilitated rape cases. During the public question and answer period, I pointed to the title of their talk and asked them whether the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office was indeed prosecuting rave promoters or otherwise targeting raves and ravers. Both prosecutors answered that their office does not target rave promoters and does not target the people who use drugs at raves. Their focus, they said, is on prosecuting drug-facilitated rape, and driving under the influence of drugs. The MDMA cases they see are almost always the result of serendipitous discoveries, not of concerted law-enforcement operations.

The seminar concluded after several more talks aimed at educating the toxicologists with respect to the pharmacology of rave drugs and on how the California Poison Control Service manages overdoses of GHB, ketamine, MDMA, and dextromethorphan. Both of these talks seemed balanced and composed, for the most part, of accurate information and relatively good advice – especially the talk by Dr. Christine Haller of the California Poison Control System. Dr. Haller seemed compassionate and well-informed.

With the day’s proceedings at an end, the organizers invited all attendees to the "Social Hour" held in the hotel bar, noting that we were all entitled to two free drinks.

Wandering into the bar, for a final opportunity to mingle with the toxicologists, I was quickly invited by a kind toxicologist to come join her table—a table where, I noticed, Earth of erowid.org was already seated. Before long the table was involved in a dynamic discussion of drugs, drug policy, and cultural phobias concerning the alteration of consciousness. The hints that I had received earlier in the day—that perhaps these people were not rabid drug warriors--were verified. Some of those that I chatted with had read PIHKAL and, compared to the average person, were sophisticated with respect to drugs. Many of them hold advanced degrees in chemistry. It was clear that they were inspired by drug chemistry and interested in the effects of drugs. I calculated that six out of every seven toxicologists I talked to thought that the War on Drugs was bad policy, especially with respect to MDMA.

It is clear to me that articulate proponents of alternative drug policy need to attend these events. Defense attorneys should attend in order to meet the toxicologists who we are all too commonly perceived as puppets of the prosecutors.(4) This was the first time I was able to actually spend any length of time with toxicologists and I found that most of them were committed to the science of the issue, not necessarily the government’s policy and that they considered themselves independent scientists who were not necessarily hostile to defense counsel. If more defense attorneys knew this, the technique for cross-examining toxicologists in drug cases would take a dramatic turn.

Presently, almost every defense attorney I know views the State’s toxicologist as a hostile, rather than neutral, witness. After all, the toxicologist is there to testify that the drug their client was found with was indeed MDMA, or that the laboratory equipment and chemicals found in their client’s garage were the makings of an illicit drug laboratory. Because of this, defense counsel’s cross-examination of the government’s toxicologist is usually designed as an attack. I’m not saying that defense attorneys should forego hiring their own expert toxicologists or forego performing independent testing, I’m simply saying that it is very much worth considering the fact that the state toxicologist may provide very helpful testimony if he or she is asked the right questions rather than immediately placed under attack. Additionally, I can’t think of a stronger group of potential allies for advocates of alternative drug policy, than the government’s own toxicologists. The Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics, is committed to reaching out to toxicologists with respect, and supporting those who are genuinely interested in learning more about entheogens, cognitive enhancers such as MDMA, and alternatives to criminalization.

 

Notes

(1) I am grateful to Rick Doblin of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) for encouraging me to attend, and for paying my plane fare to and from the conference.

(2) For details of the other talks (as well as another person’s perspective on the law-oriented talks) read the summary by Earth of erowid.org.

(3) Ms. Poratta, a retired LAPD detective who now works as a "rave consultant" to law enforcement and prosecution agencies, is as close to a modern day Harry J. Anslinger as I’ve yet seen in person. When I asked some of the attendees what they thought of her presentation, their reply was that "she works for the prosecution," emphasizing that she is an ideologue whose opinions were disregarded by the toxicologists. For more about her talk, which was seething with hyperbole, inaccuracies, and condescension, see Earth’s summary.

(4) Although I kept an eye out for defense counsel who might be in attendance, I did not find a single one.

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