Adventures in the Rave Trade
Report on the "L.A. Rave" conference
held by the California Association of Toxicologists on May 5, 2000
Richard Glen Boire, J.D.
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
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
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 drugs 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.
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 wasnt going to be as uptight and cop-minded as I had suspected.
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.
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.
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).
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 "cant 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.
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."
Braun fits the part of a stereotypical DEA agent who has risen to a management position.
Hes 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 guya jock with a mission he
believes in, but clearly a man with some self-control and decency.
Braun explained that MDMA was "causing law enforcement big problems" and said
hed "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.
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 Indiacountries 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.
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.
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.
Braun said that the worlds 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."
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 dont go after those kids, we dont target
them. Were mandated by Congress to work at a much higher level." He said that
law enforcement was only one part of the governments war on drugs and that
"prevention, education and treatment" also play important roles.
next law enforcement speaker was Anthony Shapiro an undercover L.A. County Sheriffs
narcotics detectivecommonly 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
hasnt spent much, if any, time thinking about larger policy issues.
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 dont realize hes an
undercover narcotics detective and talk to him about where to get MDMAare 18-20 year
old kids that he befriends at raves. Agent Shapiro said that he doesnt 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
sellers 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.
described people on MDMA as losing all sexual inhibitions and "want[ing] to get naked
with four people." He seemed to equate and confuse MDMAs empathogenic effects
and the caring behavior that it tends to elicit, with increased sexual desire.
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 Shapiros 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. Ive 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.
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)
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 Attorneys 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.
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.
the days 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
into the bar, for a final opportunity to mingle with the toxicologists, I was quickly
invited by a kind toxicologist to come join her tablea 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 daythat 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.
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 governments 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.
almost every defense attorney I know views the States 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 clients garage were the makings of an illicit drug
laboratory. Because of this, defense counsels cross-examination of the
governments toxicologist is usually designed as an attack. Im not saying that
defense attorneys should forego hiring their own expert toxicologists or forego performing
independent testing, Im 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
cant think of a stronger group of potential allies for advocates of alternative drug
policy, than the governments 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.
(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 persons
perspective on the law-oriented talks) read the summary by Earth
(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 Ive 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 Earths summary.
(4) Although I kept an eye out for defense counsel who might be in
attendance, I did not find a single one.