Ecstasy Crackdown

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    But wasn't some of the love and unity at the raves chemically generated? Sure. Raves sprang from underground, and drugs were always part of them. For a decade now, electronic-music fans have been protesting that they are creating a culture as valid and vital as the scenes that appeared around jazz in the 1930s or folk rock in the 1960s. And drugs were surely an integral part of those worlds. "It is no secret," TIME noted in a 1943 article, "The Weed," "that some of the finest flights of American syncopation owe much of their expressiveness to the use of a drug."

    State Palace staff members suspected that some of the ravers were taking ecstasy, but they had seen drugs at other events too: giant clouds of pot smoke would rise from reggae crowds, for instance. Still, employees say they fought to prevent drugs from being consumed on any night. How hard did they really fight? Depends on whom you believe. Employees say for big nights--rave or otherwise--the State Palace hired three off-duty but uniformed cops to assist house security guards. But after Kirkland's death, the New Orleans police department was slammed in the media for allowing officers to work off-duty at the place where she had passed out. The N.O.P.D. pulled its cops. Club workers say they then had no easy way to get dealers arrested. They say that maybe 10 times, they caught dealers and then called the N.O.P.D. or a local agent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to arrest them. "But no one would ever come get these people," laments a club employee. George Cazenavette III, who runs the DEA's New Orleans office, says he can't comment on that charge. N.O.P.D. commanders deny they ever ignored calls from the State Palace.

    The government is basing its allegations against the Brunets and Estopinal mostly on the work of DEA agent Michael Templeton. Cazenavette says Templeton's baby face made him a good investigator among young ravers. But the rave world that Estopinal was creating must have seemed monstrously weird to Templeton, who had come to New Orleans after being a cop in rural Johnson City, Tenn., for four years. In addition to being dances, Estopinal's parties were often wacky performance-art spectacles featuring fire eaters, trapeze artists, cross-dressers on roller skates and other assorted characters.

    Mounting an undercover operation in this world without rules is horrid work for your average cop. "It's loud and dark in there. There are the strobe lights in your eyes. Ugh," says N.O.P.D. captain Steve Nicholas. "It's just not an easy thing to find these people." But Templeton found them. For six months beginning in February 2000, he went undercover to at least eight State Palace raves. He and a fellow agent were able to buy 45 hits of ecstasy and five other illegal pills. They also learned from local ambulance companies that from December 1997 to August 2000, more than 70 overdose victims were hauled from the State Palace to the emergency room--an average of about two per rave. The agents didn't arrest any of the dealers for two reasons. First, such arrests usually result in trivial convictions. Second, by last year the DEA was so frustrated by its inability to reduce the ecstasy supply that it wanted to try new strategies. In August the agency held an international conference on ecstasy, at which officials noted that for every major seizure of pills at an airport, perhaps millions more were slipping into the country. The DEA resolved to redouble its efforts to combat the ecstasy that was already circulating in U.S. cities.

    The New Orleans case was apparently part of the DEA's new campaign. By going after promoters, the agency wouldn't have to waste its time on low-level dealers. And evidence that managers were running something akin to a crack house seemed to be everywhere. There were all those pacifiers and glow sticks. The bottled water on sale was also suspect, since drugs that rev the system often cause dehydration. In an affidavit, Templeton even cited dancers' moves as evidence of drug use. It's common, he wrote, "for persons involved in rave management to allow patrons to touch and massage one another to enhance the heightened sensory perception to palpation created by the use of [ecstasy]." O.K., but it's also common for people who are dancing to get funky, whether they are high or not.

    To be sure, the DEA is on to something. Plenty of drug users showed up for the raves. Templeton says in his affidavit that when he went undercover to talk to Brian Brunet about working at the club, Brunet told him he didn't expect security guards to look actively for drug activity. If they found it, Brunet allegedly said, the guards usually didn't contact authorities. When Templeton commented to Brunet that getting dealers arrested would kill the party, Brunet allegedly responded, "Exactly." Templeton says that during his rave nights, numerous dealers were offering him drugs, messed-up kids were constantly vomiting, people were smoking pot openly--but "neither the security guards [nor] the management...did anything to curtail the illegal activity going on around them."

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