By Brad Lopez
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By Noah Hubbell
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Statewide restrictions on campfires have already dampened the spirits of local rugged types who've resigned themselves to spending summer indoors, lest they endure freezing-cold evenings at high altitudes warmed only by a Coleman stove. And next summer, fans of Colorado's many outdoor concert series and festivals could face an even more dire threat, albeit one from a non-natural source.
Currently working its way through the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., is the CLEAN-UP Methamphetamines Act (H.R. 3782), a bill that has implications for the concert industry as well as the drug business. When it was introduced by Representative Doug Ose, a Republican from California, in February, the bill was presented as a comprehensive package to fight the production, sale and consumption of meth, that icky, foul-smelling, wholly toxic narcotic that most of the non-speed-taking public probably agrees is a nuisance, if not Chemical Enemy #1. The Denver area has certainly seen its share of meth-lab busts -- and combustions -- over the past year. (Let's just hope no one is manufacturing this stuff in parched and wooded areas: The Hi Meth Meadow Fire could get ugly.)
Inserted deep into the bill's many sections and subsections is a clause that would hold "promoters of drug-oriented entertainment" liable for illegal drug activity at the shows they present. According to the proposed measure, "Whoever promotes any rave, dance, music or other entertainment event that takes place under circumstances where the promoter knows or reasonably ought to know that a controlled substance will be used or distributed" could face hefty fines and/or as many as nine years in jail. CLEAN-UP Meth is already enjoying robust bipartisan support within the House, where it has more than sixty sponsors, and it is currently under consideration by the House Subcommittee on Education Reform, which includes Littleton-based Representative Tom Tancredo as a member. (Representatives for Tancredo, who has expressed support for H.R. 3782, did not respond to inquiries from Backwash.) The bill is still a long but not untraversable distance from the Senate and the president's desk; if it materializes into law, CLEAN-UP Meth could take effect as early as next summer.
So, how much drug activity would a promoter have to reasonably anticipate in order to protect himself? CLEAN-UP Meth doesn't limit its language to the illegal use of meth or other sniffy substances, which could mean that even the most mellow pre-show parking-lot fiesta at Red Rocks could turn into a DEA free-for-all if the bill passes and is enforced. But it isn't just raves, hip-hop shows and Phish concerts where the joints -- and various pills, elixirs and "special" baked goods -- are passed. Even an unseasoned concert-goer is likely to equate the gentle waft of marijuana smoke with the overall live-music experience, whether the performer in question is Moby, Marilyn Manson or Mannheim Steamroller.
"It seems so ludicrous to me that this could even be considered," says Planet Bluegrass director Craig Ferguson, who is getting ready for the Telluride Bluegrass Festival set for late June. "I can't imagine how something like that could be equally enforced without being selective in a way that would raise a lot of legal concerns." (Ferguson's company has already had its share of drug-related hassles in recent years; many patrons of the 2000 Telluride Bluegrass Festival were forced to stop at a checkpoint after Montezuma County sheriff's deputies, many of them hidden in roadside bushes and behind signs, signaled them out.)
"It's clear that there's an expectation of drug use at almost any event, not just concerts," he says. "I don't know how a high school could hold a prom without some expectation of drug use. And if you have a church service with 3,000, at least one of those people is going to be using drugs. But do you throw the principal in jail? The pastor? I don't think so. So why the promoter?"
Jason Miller of House of Blues Concerts insists that he isn't worried about CLEAN-UP Meth. His company already runs a clean ship, he says, and works with local and state authorities to make shows as substance-free as possible. It would be difficult for anyone -- from the government on down -- to accuse the average professional concert promoter of not taking drugs seriously, he adds: "We work with everyone, from the police department, sheriff's office, fire, medical, security, everything. Drugs are just one part of what we have to worry about in the big picture. But it would be very difficult to argue that there's any lack of effort on our part, or on the part of any promoter who knows what he's doing.
"It seems to me that a bill like this is really directed at the people who put on rave events, illicit events, who are getting a temporary permit and throwing an event in a field," he says. "That's not what we do. And I've never been to one, so I don't know. But it would seem that those are the kind of events where you have more likelihood of negligence."
Defenders of electronic music and rave culture have long argued that drug activity isn't limited to events at which patrons are likely to wear pacifiers as fashion accessories. In late April, DEA agents arrested more than a hundred Widespread Panic fans at the jam-band's show in Birmingham, Alabama; the same day, a young Panic fan from Colorado hanged herself at a hotel after consuming a mighty concoction of marijuana, cocaine, Ecstasy and alcohol. Had the CLEAN-UP Meth act been in place at the time of that bust, the Birmingham promoter would probably be answering his e-mail from prison right about now. (Miller is getting ready to host his own Widespread Panic party in June -- for three days at Red Rocks.)